What is the HPV vaccine?

HPV is short for human papillomavirus. HPV actually consists of more than 200 connected viruses. Of these viruses, 40 are spread through sexual contact and can cause genital warts and cancer. The HPV vaccine was created to slow the spread of human papillomavirus and prevent these diseases.

This vaccine is given in a series of two or three shots, depending on age. There are three vaccines that prevent infection with HPV. The only one used in the U.S. is Gardasil 9, which protects against:

  • Two high-risk HPVs that cause 70% of cervical cancers
  • Viruses that cause 90% of genital warts
  • Another 10 to 20% of cervical cancers

It also protects against other cancers that HPV causes including cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, throat, and anus. Cervarix and Gardasil are still used in other countries, though they may not be as effective against those additional infections accounting for 10% to 20% of cervical cancers.

Causes of HPV

HPV occurs naturally. Most people don't know they have the virus because they do not have symptoms or reactions. In addition to genital warts and cancer, HPV can silently cause other damage without you knowing. This is why the vaccine is crucial. You don’t want to unknowingly spread HPV to someone else.

HPV is spread through sexual contact with others. If you are sexually active, the HPV vaccine will minimize your chances of contracting HPV. This is especially important if you have multiple sexual partners.

Who gets HPV?

Anyone can get HPV. In fact, most adults will contract some version of the virus during the course of their life. Since it is spread through intercourse, only those who are sexually active are at risk for contracting HPV.

How do you know if you have HPV?

You may not ever find out that you carry the virus. However, if you develop genital warts or receive a cancer diagnosis, your tests will provide results linking your condition back to HPV.

Diagnosis for HPV

Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose HPV. Doctors don’t usually test for HPV unless you’re showing symptoms of genital warts, cancer, or an abnormal growth around your genitals and reproductive organs.

HPV is so prevalent that test results won’t tell your doctor whether you are at risk for developing conditions like warts or cancer.

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Treatments for HPV

The best treatment option for any medical condition is prevention. This is exactly what the HPV vaccine provides. Doctors recommend that preteens and teens from ages 9 to 14 receive two doses of the vaccination, at least five months apart, to protect them from HPV.

This is important because the HPV vaccination is most effective before you are sexually active.

If you are already sexually active and older than the recommended age, doctors still recommend getting the vaccination. It won’t cure any HPV variations that you already have, but it will help to prevent you from contracting additional strains of the virus.

Aside from receiving the vaccine as a preventative measure, HPV cannot be treated. However, the following symptoms that HPV causes can be treated:

  • Genital warts: These may go away without treatment, but your doctor can prescribe medication so that they clear quicker and don’t spread.
  • Cervical pre-cancer in women: Your treatment may include the removal of abnormal cells from your cervix to limit their spread. Your doctor may send a sample of your cervical skin to a lab for diagnostic testing to see if you have cancer.
  • Other HPV-related cancers: Standard cancer treatments include the removal of infected areas, medication, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Complications and side effects of the HPV vaccine

Your risks from contracting HPV typically outweigh the risk of side effects from receiving the vaccine. All treatments pose the risk of negative side effects, so talk to your doctor about the potential risks associated with receiving the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is still beneficial even if you are an adult.

Keep in mind that for people between the ages of 27 and 40, the vaccine is not recommended for people with some preexisting conditions. For example, if you are pregnant or have any serious allergies you should avoid the HPV vaccine. This is even more important for those people who are over the age of 40 and considering vaccination.

Serious reactions to the HPV vaccine are rare. Symptoms following the vaccine include:

It is important to remember that the only way to completely prevent HPV is abstinence. Condoms and other birth control methods cannot fully protect you from HPV or any other sexually transmitted disease.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/24/2021
References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Human Papillomavirus (HPV)."

Health Navigator New Zealand: "HPV vaccine."

Kids Health: "HPV Vaccine."

Mayo Clinic: "HPV vaccine: Who needs it, how it works."

Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center: "Think You're Too Old to Get the HPV Vaccine to Prevent Cancer? Maybe Not."

National Cancer Institute: "Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines."

Vaccines.gov: "HPV (Human Papillomavirus)."