What is HPV and how does it affect the body?
HPV is a very common virus that causes genital, oral, and skin infections. There are many types of HPV. Most of them are harmless and do not cause infections or symptoms. However, some types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and throat. Other types of HPV can cause genital warts.
Who can get HPV?
In the United States, about 80 percent of people will get HPV at some time in their lives. About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 14 million become newly infected each year. People of all genders can get HPV, and spread it to others without realizing they have the virus. HPV infection is most common in the late teens and early 20s.
How does someone get HPV?
People can get HPV from an infected person during sexual activity. Most of the time HPV is transmitted during vaginal and/or anal sex, but people can also get HPV from having oral sex or other sex play. Most people who have HPV do not have symptoms. They can easily spread the virus to others without knowing it.
What are other ways someone could get HPV?
Very rarely, a pregnant person with HPV can pass it to their baby during vaginal delivery. This can result in serious problems, including problems with breathing and sometimes severe or fatal developmental disabilities.
How do I know if I have HPV?
Some people know they have HPV because they have symptoms, such as genital warts. Most people don't know they have HPV because they have no signs or symptoms.
Women may find out they have HPV through cervical cancer screening (Pap tests) and HPV antibody testing. Health care providers usually do not test for HPV unless they find abnormal cervical cell changes in a Pap test. Routine HPV tests for women or men do not happen at this time. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or clinic if you have questions about HPV testing.
What is the link between HPV and cancer?
In general, HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, and more than 60% of penile cancers. Cancers of the head and neck (or oropharynx) are often caused by tobacco and alcohol, but recent studies show that about 70% of cancers of the oropharynx may be linked to HPV. Many cancers of the oropharynx may be caused by a combination of tobacco, alcohol, and HPV. For more information, see the CDC's resource center on HPV and cancer.
Each year, about 38,793 new cases of cancer are found in parts of the body where HPV is often found. HPV causes about 30,700 of these cancers. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer among women, and oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) are the most common among men.
HPV vaccination can prevent about 28,500 new cancers per year.
For females, Pap tests can detect cell changes before cervical cancer develops. Women who get the HPV vaccine should continue getting Pap tests because the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
How can HPV infection be prevented?
The HPV vaccines offer by far the best protection if given before sexual activity starts. Getting vaccinated will not get rid of any existing HPV infections you have, but you should still get one, as it will protect you from other strains of HPV you have not yet been exposed to. The HPV vaccine can prevent infections from some of the most common and serious types of HPV that cause cancers and genital warts.
Using condoms during sex offers good protection against sexual infections like HPV. Remember, though, that HPV can be transmitted during many forms of sexual activity, not just intercourse.
You can prevent HPV infection by abstaining from all sexual activity. Even people with only one lifetime partner can get HPV if their partner had previous sexual partners.
What HPV vaccines are available?
One vaccine is available to prevent HPV infection. This vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV or other sexually transmitted infections, but offers protection against some types.
- Gardasil 9 – for use in all genders. Protects against 9 different types of HPV: seven that cause cancer and two that cause genital warts.
Who should get the vaccine and when should they get it?
All kids who are nine years old should get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is most effective and the immune system responds best when given at this age.
Catch-up vaccination is recommended for all people through age 26. People age 27-45 may be vaccinated after discussing this option with a health care provider. Talk to your healthcare provider about what doses you may need.
People who are breast or chest feeding may get the HPV vaccine. HPV vaccine is not recommended for pregnant people.
Two doses of the vaccine are needed for those who start the series between ages 9 and 14 and have a healthy immune system. Those who start after age 15 need three doses. Anyone with a weak immune system should get three doses, even if they start the series at 9 or later.
HPV vaccine is not required to attend school in Washington.
How long does protection last?
HPV vaccine offers long-lasting protection against HPV infection and HPV associated disease. Protection produced by HPV vaccine lasts at least 8-10 years, according to data from clinical trials and ongoing research. There is no evidence to suggest that HPV vaccine loses the ability to provide protection over time. Research will continue to determine how long the vaccine's protection lasts.
Like all vaccines, HPV vaccine is monitored continually to make sure it remains safe and effective. If protection doesn't last as long as it should, then the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices would review the data and determine if a booster shot should be recommended.
Will the vaccine help if I already have HPV?
The vaccine won't cure any HPV infection you already have. However, there are many strains of HPV, so you should still get the vaccine to protect you against other strains you may not have been exposed to yet.
If you have already had sex but don't know if you have HPV, you should still get the HPV vaccine. HPV infection usually happens soon after someone has sex for the first time, but a person might not have been exposed to any or all of the HPV types that are in the vaccine. Anyone in the age groups recommended for vaccination is likely to get some protection from the vaccine.
How can I get the vaccine?
Kids under age 19 can get HPV vaccine for free in Washington state. Some health care providers' offices charge an administration fee or an office visit fee. You can ask to waive the administration fee if you can't pay.
For people age 19 and older, the vaccine is available from many clinics and pharmacies. Most health insurance plans cover the vaccine for people recommended to get it. Call your health plan to check your coverage. For adults without health insurance, the companies that make these vaccines have programs to help pay for them. Find out if your health care provider participates in these programs.
Are HPV vaccines safe?
Yes. Prior to licensing, all vaccines go through safety tests. After licensing, vaccines go through intensive monitoring to check for side effects. Like any medicine, vaccines can have side effects. In most cases, vaccines cause no side effects, or only mild reactions such as fever or soreness at the injection site. Very rarely, people experience more serious problems, such as an allergic reaction. HPV vaccination is typically not associated with any serious side effects. The benefits of HPV vaccination far outweigh any potential risk of side effects.
Vaccines reduce the risk of infection by working with the body's natural defenses to help it safely develop immunity to disease, because they only give an “imitation” infection, which does not cause illness. Minor symptoms such as fever mean your body is building immunity to the disease.
Be sure to tell your health care provider about health problems or known severe, life-threatening allergies to medications or specific products before you or your child receives a vaccine.
HPV vaccines went through years of extensive safety and performance testing before they were licensed by the Food and Drug Administration. No serious safety concerns were identified in extensive clinical trials. FDA only licenses a vaccine if it is safe, it is effective, and the benefits outweigh the risks. The CDC and the FDA continue to monitor HPV vaccine to make sure it is safe and beneficial for the public. They monitor any possible side effects (adverse events) through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and other vaccine safety systems. Read more from the CDC on vaccine safety.
Where can I find more information?
- Washington State Department of Health Immunizations Page (DOH)
- HPV vaccine is cancer prevention. (DOH)
- Cancer screening (DOH)
- Information on HPV and HPV vaccine (CDC)
- HPV and its link to cancer (American Cancer Society)
- HPV and cancer fact sheet (National Cancer Institute)