Understanding HPV Vaccines

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus. It is a very common virus. HPV spreads from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. HPV can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex, but it can also spread through intimate contact without having …

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus. It is a very common virus. HPV spreads from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. HPV can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex, but it can also spread through intimate contact without having sexual intercourse. Most people who have sex will get HPV sometime in their lives; however, few people will realize they have HPV. In fact, most HPV infections go away naturally in less than two years.

There is no treatment for an HPV infection. HPV that does not go away on its own can cause abnormal cells that may lead to cancer of the cervix. HPV also causes many anal cancers, as well as some cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, head, and neck.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Some types can cause genital warts, and about 15 types can cause HPV-related cancers.

  • HPV types that cause genital warts are referred to as “low-risk.” HPV 6 and 11 are two low-risk types that are responsible for about 90% of genital warts.
  • HPV types that cause certain cancers are referred to as “high-risk.” Two high-risk types, HPV 16 and 18, cause about 70% of all cervical cancers.  Other high-risk HPV types cause the other 30%.

HPV vaccines can prevent infection by some of the most common types of HPV. Vaccines may reduce the risk of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and pre-cancers, as well as genital warts. There are two vaccines available:

  • Gardasil, approved in 2006 for use in females ages 9 through 26, protects against four types of HPV – two high-risk types (HPV types 16 and 18) and two low-risk types (HPV types 6 and 11). In 2009, Gardasil was approved for use in males ages 9 through 26. Gardasil is used to prevent cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and pre-cancers caused by HPV 16 and 18, as well as genital warts caused by HPV 6 and 11.
  • Cervarix, approved in 2009 for use in females ages 10 through 25, protects against two high-risk types of HPV, 16 and 18. Cervarix is used to prevent cervical cancer and pre-cancer caused by HPV 16 and 18. In 2011, the approval for Cervarix was extended to girls as young as age 9.

Frequently Asked Questions about HPV Vaccines

How do the HPV vaccines work?

  • The HPV vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system. The body produces antibodies to certain HPV types, the same as if a person really had the virus.

Can the vaccines infect a person with HPV?

  • No, the vaccines don’t contain the live virus, so a person can’t get infected through vaccination.

Who should get vaccinated?

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Cancer Society recommend that all girls ages 11 to 12 get vaccinated.
    Girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 26 can get vaccinated too. The vaccines are not approved for women over 26 or recommended for pregnant women.
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that all boys ages 11 to 12 receive the HPV vaccine that protects against genital warts.  Boys and young men ages 13 through 21 may be vaccinated if they have not received the 3-dose series. The vaccine is also recommended for males 22 through 26 years of age whose immune systems are weakened, who have sex with men, or who test positive for HIV.

Why is vaccination recommended for young girls and boys?

  • The vaccines do not treat existing infection.  Since most people who are sexually active will be infected by HPV, it works best to vaccinate young girls and boys before they become sexually active. This enables them to develop protection against the HPV types prevented by the vaccines.

If a boy or girl gets vaccinated, does the parent have to explain sex to him or her?

  • It is the parent’s decision whether to tell the child about sex at this time. It is truthful to tell him or her that the vaccine will help prevent certain cancers in the future. A parent can also say it is just another vaccine—like the ones he or she got for the measles and mumps—to help prevent sickness later on.

How will getting vaccinated affect the risk of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

  • The HPV vaccines protect a person from getting some types of HPV. They will not protect the person from getting other types of HPV or other STIs (for example chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV.) Condoms should always be used, especially with new sexual partners or if a person’s partner has other sex partners.

Can a woman get vaccinated if she has had an abnormal Pap test, a positive test for HPV or treatment for cervical cancer?

  • Yes. She can still get vaccinated, but it may not be as effective. Women should speak with their health care providers about how much protection vaccination can provide.

Will getting vaccinated treat an existing HPV infection?

  • No, it will not. There is no treatment for an HPV infection. The vaccines are for prevention only.

Where can a person get vaccinated?

  • HPV vaccinations are provided by pediatricians, gynecologists, family doctors, or nurse practitioners.
Questions to Ask a Health Care Provider Before Getting Vaccinated
Which type of vaccine is best? Both vaccines are safe and effective.  Cervarix, which can only be used in girls and women, protects against the HPV types that are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers.  Gardasil, which can be used for males and females, protects against cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and pre-cancers caused by HPV 16 and 18, as well as genital warts caused by HPV 6 and 11. Discussing the vaccine with a health care provider can help a person decide which is the right vaccine for him or her.
How are the vaccines given?


The vaccines are given in three separate shots (doses) over a 6-month period.

  • 1st shot: Date chosen by patient.
  • 2nd shot: Two months after 1st shot.
  • 3rd shot: Four months after 2nd shot.
What should be expected after vaccination? Are there any side effects? Medical studies show that the HPV vaccines are very safe. A person’s skin might be sore, red, itchy, or swollen at the injection site. Some people may get a fever, headache, nausea, or dizziness after getting the shot.
Is a Pap test or HPV test needed before getting vaccinated? No. Pap or HPV tests are not needed before HPV vaccination. At age 21, however, women should begin getting Pap tests, even if they have been vaccinated.
If a woman gets vaccinated, can she stop getting Pap and HPV tests? No. She should continue to have regular screening tests. The vaccines don’t protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. Also, some people may not get full protection against the specific types of HPV the vaccines are designed to prevent—for instance, if they’ve already been exposed to HPV or haven’t had all three shots.
How long does HPV vaccination last? Currently, it appears that the vaccines protect against HPV for at least 6 years. Studies suggest that the vaccines are effective at providing long-lasting protection.  Additional studies need to be done to see how long vaccinated people remain immune and whether booster shots are needed.
How much do the vaccines cost? Each shot costs $130 to $150, for a total of around $390 to $450 for the series. Some providers also will charge a fee to administer the shots.

Many health insurance companies pay for the cost of all three shots. HPV vaccination is included in the Vaccines for Children Program for boys and girls up to the age of 18.

Even after getting vaccinated, a person can still get other types of HPV and STIs. That’s why it’s important to:

  • Practice safe (or safer) sex. That means using condoms with all sexual partners. Condoms won’t offer complete protection, but they are the best option aside from not having sex at all (abstinence).
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking makes it harder for the body to fight viruses like HPV.

At age 21, women should also have their first Pap test. From age 21 through 29, women should have the test every three years. Women age 30 and older can have Pap and HPV tests every 5 years. Or, they can opt to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.

Drug Integrity Associate Audrey Amos is a pharmacist with experience in health communication and has a passion for making health information accessible. She received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Butler University. As a Drug Integrity Associate, she audits drug content, addresses drug-related queries

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