The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that can spread through sexual contact. While some HPV infections may resolve by themselves, others can persist and increase the risk of certain cancers. To reduce this risk, people can receive an HPV vaccine that helps protect against several strains of HPV. These include strains that can cause warts and strains that can cause cancer.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that a person can get after intimate skin-to-skin contact with another person. There are at least 20 different STIs borne by viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can transmit via sexual contact. Of these, HPV is the most common in the United States, and it causes more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers.

In addition to routine testing and practicing safer sex methods, receiving the HPV shot can help reduce the risk of HPV infections that can result in genital warts and HPV-related cancers.

In this article, we will discuss the safety and efficacy of HPV shots and who should consider receiving the vaccine.

A child receiving an HPV shot from a doctor.Share on Pinterest
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HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses. People refer to them as papillomaviruses because many of them can cause papillomas or warts. From this group, roughly 40 types can spread through direct sexual contact. Among these, two types can result in genital warts, and many types are high-risk and can cause certain types of cancer, such as:

HPV shots can help prevent infections from certain types of HPV and the cancers associated with them. Similar to other immunizations, they stimulate a person’s body to create antibodies that prepare them to fight off the infection upon future encounters.

HPV vaccines contain virus-like particles that closely resemble particles on HPV’s surface. These illicit a strong immune response, enabling a person to produce high levels of antibodies against HPV, which provides effective protection.

At present, there are three HPV vaccines licensed in the U.S.: Gardasil, Cervarix, and Gardasil-9. But Gardasil-9 is currently the only vaccine available for distribution in the U.S. since it targets the most types of HPV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that all three vaccines went through strict safety testing before receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). More than 15 years of safety monitoring and research by both the CDC and FDA indicate that the vaccines are safe.

Safety reviews for these vaccines, published in 2018 and 2019, both highlight the safety profile of these vaccines. Their side effects are similar to those experienced with other vaccines. In the 2019 study, researchers reviewed more than 7,000 reports made by people who received Gardasil 9 to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. They found that 97% of these reports were non-serious.

The CDC states that the HPV vaccines are effective, provide long-lasting protection, and have the potential to prevent more than 90% of HPV-attributable cancers. Since rolling out HPV vaccinations in 2006, there has been a significant reduction in HPV infections.

Aside from helping prevent HPV infections, large-scale studies published in 2020, 2021, and 2021 also found that HPV vaccines significantly reduce a person’s risk for developing precancers and cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina.

While Cervarix and Gardasil help prevent infection from two high-risk HPV types (HPV16 and HPV18) compared with Gardasil-9, evidence suggests that their efficacy is comparable, as these two HPV types are responsible for most HPV-caused cancers.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the vaccine for everyone ages 11–12 years up to age 26 years. But children as young as 9 years old may receive the vaccine. After receiving the first dose, children will typically receive the second dose roughly 6–12 months later. Children who start the vaccine series on or after age 15 years may require three doses that they will receive over 6 months.

The CDC notes that HPV vaccination may not be advisable for individuals older than age 26 years, since giving the vaccine to a person in this age group offers less benefit. But people ages 27–45 years who have not received a vaccination can speak with their doctors to discuss their options and whether the vaccine will benefit them.

Certain individuals should not receive the vaccine. This includes:

  • individuals with a severe allergic reaction to a past dose of HPV vaccine or any component of the vaccine
  • those with an allergy to yeast
  • people who are pregnant

While a vaccine will not likely cause harm to a fetus, the CDC recommends postponing vaccinations until after the pregnancy. People who are breastfeeding may get the vaccine.

Those with an allergy to yeasts or who have severe allergic reactions should first consult with their doctor. If a person is unwell or has a severe condition, they should consider speaking with their doctor before receiving any vaccines.

Health authorities recommend people receive the vaccines at a young age. This is because getting them before a person’s first sexual contact can offer lifelong protection against HPV-related cancers. Children can take it as early as age 9 years, but people typically receive the vaccine at 11–12 years old.

Children younger than 15 years old only need to have two doses that are at least 6 months apart. Individuals older than 15 years and immunocompromised people need to have three doses of the vaccine. They should receive their second dose 1–2 months after the first dose, and their third dose 6 months after the previous one.

Like other vaccinations, HPV can have side effects. But many people do not get any side effects or report very mild ones. These can include:

Sometimes, people can experience jerky movements or may faint after receiving their shot. So it is advisable for people to sit or lay down for about 15 minutes after receiving their shots to help prevent them from fainting or falling.

Rarely, people with severe allergies may have severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) after receiving their shot. People should tell the healthcare professional of any severe allergies before receiving the vaccine.

Individuals and caregivers of children can inquire about the HPV vaccine from their healthcare professional, community and school health clinics, health centers, and health departments.

Individuals can also check the CDC’s directory of health department websites and local health departments to find centers that can provide the service. They can also get the vaccine from one of Planned Parenthood’s health centers.

HPV is a group of viruses with hundreds of different types that can cause common viral infections affecting the skin, particularly moist skin areas, such as the genitals, mouth, throat, and anus. HPV is the most common STI in the U.S. While many HPV infections are not harmful, some types can result in the development of cancer.

Getting an HPV vaccine, especially before a person becomes sexually active, can offer lifelong protection from high-risk HPV types associated with cancer.