What It Is and What It Protects Against

The HPV vaccine protects against human papillomavirus, a virus spread through sexual contact. Since HPV often doesn’t display symptoms, most people are unaware they have the disease. The risks of HPV include causing certain types of cancer, including cervical in women, as well as genital warts and anal cancer in both men and women, and penile cancers in men.

General Use

The HPV vaccine is a three-dose vaccine. It is recommended that women 26 years old or younger get the vaccine, which is given in three doses over 6 months. Cervarix is licensed for use in women between the ages of 10 to 25, as well as Gardasil for females between the ages of 9 to 26. For men, age 26 or younger, Gardasil can protect against genital warts.

Who Should Not Get It

While most HPV infections go away without the need for treatment, the HPV vaccine is important to help prevent cervical cancer in women, which can be caused from HPV. The vaccine also protects against other cancers (vaginal and vulvar in females) and anal cancer and genital warts (in both men and women).

The CDC advises the following people not to get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine:

  • those who experienced severe allergy to the HPV vaccine in the past
  • pregnant women (however, breast-feeding women may get the vaccine)
  • anyone who is moderately to severely ill is advised to wait until a full recovery before getting vaccinated  
  • Particularly if you are sexually active, it is likely you have been exposed to HPV. It is reasonable to check the blood for evidence of exposure to HPV before getting the vaccine.

Potential Side Effects

Though the risk of serious harm from the vaccine is small compared with the actual untreated disease, the vaccine does hold some risk, from mild to severe side effects.

Mild side effects include:

  • redness or swelling
  • pain
  • fever
  • headache
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • muscle or joint pain
  • fainting

Severe side effects include:

  • serious allergic reaction, though rare, can happen after receiving the HPV vaccine