What Is HPV and Why Is It a Problem?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). HPV is the virus that causes genital warts.
Besides causing genital warts, an HPV infection can mean trouble for both girls and guys:
- In females, HPV infection can cause problems with the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer. HPV infection also can cause problems that may lead to cancer in the vagina, vulva, anus, mouth, and throat.
- In males, HPV infection may lead to cancer in the penis, anus, mouth, and throat.
- New research suggests that HPV may be linked to heart disease in women.
Both girls and guys can get HPV from sexual contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Most people infected with HPV don’t know they have it because they don’t notice any signs or problems. People do not always develop genital warts, but the virus is still in their system and it could be causing damage. This means that people with HPV can pass the infection to others without knowing it.
Because HPV can cause problems like genital warts and some kinds of cancer, a vaccine is an important step in preventing infection and protecting against the spread of HPV.
That’s why doctors recommend that all girls and guys get the vaccine at these ages:
- Girls: from age 11 or 12 through age 26
- Guys: from age 11 or 12 through age 21
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the HPV vaccine as safe for both guys and girls ages 9 to 26 years old.
How Does the Vaccine Work?
The HPV vaccine is given as three injections over a 6-month period. The vaccine does not protect people against strains of HPV that might have infected them before getting the vaccine. Being vaccinated before having sex for the first time is the most effective way to prevent HPV infection. But even if you have had sex, don’t give up on getting the vaccine. It’s still the best way to protect against strains of the virus that you may not have come in contact with.
The vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV. Anyone having sex should get routine checkups at a doctor’s office or health clinic. Girls should get Pap smears when a doctor recommends it — usually around age 21 unless there are signs of a problem before that.
The HPV vaccine is not a replacement for using condoms to protect against other strains of HPV — and other STDs — when having sex.
Most of the side effects that people get from the HPV vaccine are minor. They may include swelling or pain at the site of the shot, or feeling faint after getting the vaccine. As with other vaccines, there is a small chance of an allergic reaction.
A few people have reported health problems after getting the shot. The FDA is monitoring the vaccine closely to make sure these are not caused by the vaccine itself.
Most people have no trouble with the vaccine. You can lessen your risk of fainting by sitting down for 15 minutes after each shot.
Protecting Yourself Against HPV
For people who are having sex, condoms offer some protection against HPV. Condoms can’t completely prevent infections because hard-to-see warts can be outside the area covered by a condom, and the virus can infect people even when a partner doesn’t have warts. Also, condoms can break.
The only way to be completely sure about preventing HPV infections and other STDs is not to have sex (abstinence).
Spermicidal foams, creams, and jellies have not been proven to protect against HPV or genital warts. If you have questions about the vaccine or are concerned about STDs, talk to your doctor.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: February 2015