What to know about the HPV vaccine

HPV (human papillomavirus) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.1 It’s a virus that can lead to genital warts and several different types of cancer. But the HPV vaccine can help protect teens and young adults. And while it protects both men and women from genital warts, it offers an additional protection for women: A recent study showed it reduced the risk of developing cervical cancer by almost 90% among girls vaccinated before age 17.2

How does HPV cause cancer?

There are over 100 strains of HPV, and not all of them cause health problems.3 In fact, most of the time HPV goes away on its own. But several types, mainly strains HPV 16 and HPV 18, can develop into cancer.4 “They cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers worldwide4 and nearly 90% of anal cancers,”5 says Theofano Orfanelli, M.D., Ph.D., gynecologic oncologist and assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine at Stony Brook Medicine in New York. These types of HPV are also linked to oropharyngeal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancer.1

So, how does HPV cause cancer exactly? “It contains proteins that turn off tumor-suppressor genes and allow HPV to infect cells,” explains Michael Krychman, M.D.C.M., a California-based ob-gyn/mental health services clinician at HerMD, which offers women’s health care services. As a result, healthy cells turn into abnormal ones and grow out of control. Over time that can develop into cancer.6

What does the HPV vaccine do?

The vaccine helps prevent you from getting infected with HPV. While there are currently several vaccines that can help prevent HPV infection, the only one available for use in the U.S. is Gardasil-9.7

“The vaccine we have here protects against many types of HPV, including strains 16 and 18, which are the types most commonly linked to cervical cancer,”3 says Dr. Krychman. “It exposes you to the protein, so that your body develops antibodies. So, if you’re exposed to the virus again, you’ll have antibodies and will be protected.”

Who is the vaccine for and when should it be given?

Generally, it’s recommended that boys and girls get the vaccine when they’re 11 or 12, to protect them before they become sexually active. (The vaccine can be administered as early as 9 years old.) If you miss that window, a catch-up vaccination — vaccinating people who did not receive it at the recommended age — is suggested until age 26, says Dr. Orfanelli. After that, there’s less evidence that vaccination is useful because most people in this age range have probably already been exposed to HPV, she explains. 

But there are exceptions. If you weren’t very sexually active in your teens or early 20s but have a mix of new sexual partners in your late 20s or 30s, then the vaccine may be helpful. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re a candidate. 

The HPV vaccine itself is given as a series of shots. Children ages 9 through 14 get two doses, 6 to 12 months apart. People between the ages of 15 and 45 or those who are immunocompromised get three doses, given over 6 months.8

Who shouldn’t get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is not recommended if you’re pregnant. But if you did happen to get the vaccine before you knew you were expecting, don’t worry. Studies so far show that the vaccine doesn’t cause problems for babies whose moms were vaccinated while pregnant.9

You should also talk to your doctor or a health care professional if you have a yeast allergy, since the vaccine contains a very small amount of yeast, says Dr. Krychman.7 Also, if you’ve been diagnosed with HPV previously, you may still be a candidate for the vaccine since it can protect you against other strains of the virus as well.10

What are the HPV vaccine’s side effects?

According to the National Cancer Institute, the HPV vaccine is very safe. It’s been carefully monitored for over a decade, with no serious side effects.11 “The most commonly reported side effects are pain at the injection site, along with redness and swelling,” says Dr. Krychman. 

More rarely, it may make you feel dizzy or cause you to faint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you stay seated or lie down for about 15 minutes after you get the shot.12

The bottom line: If you — or your child — are between the ages of 11 to 26, consider the HPV vaccine. “The HPV vaccine is your best defense against cervical cancer,” says Dr. Krychman. “There’s little to no risk, and plenty of cancer-preventing benefits.”

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.