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Léa Jones/Stocksy United

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection. Exposure can lead to certain types of cancer, including cervical cancer and penile cancer.

HPV is transmitted through vaginal, oral, and anal sex. It’s also transmitted through nonpenetrative intimate activities, such as hand-to-genitals contact and other forms of sexual exploration.

The HPV vaccine provides protection from specific strains of HPV and the cancers they can cause.

Since it’s most effective when given before sexual exploration begins, vaccination is recommended for children ages 11 and 12. However, it can be given to children as young as 9 and to adults up to 26 or even beyond.

The HPV vaccine used in the United States is Gardasil 9. A healthcare professional will administer this vaccine as a series of two or three shots. Gardasil 9 protects against HPV 16 and HPV 18, plus these additional high-risk strains:

  • HPV 6
  • HPV 11
  • HPV 31
  • HPV 33
  • HPV 45
  • HPV 52
  • HPV 58

There are more than 100 strains of HPV. Approximately 14 strains can cause various types of cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The main cause of precancerous and cancerous cervical lesions is exposure to high risk strains of HPV, according to 2020 research.

The two kinds most often associated with cervical cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18. Other high risk HPV strains cause different cancers and genital warts.

Vaccine requirements for school attendance is typically determined at the state level, instead of the federal level. HPV vaccination is required for school attendance in certain states and jurisdictions, usually before the start of seventh grade.

These include:

  • Hawaii
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children of any gender get the vaccine at age 11 or 12. It can be administered safely to children as young as 9 years old.

The goal of early vaccination is protection from HPV exposure prior to the beginnings of sexual or intimate activity. When early vaccination does not occur, the vaccine is still recommended for people up to age 26.

People ages 27 to 45 may also opt to get vaccinated.

The HPV vaccine is given as a series of two or three shots:

  • Adolescents under age 15 should get a second shot 6 to 12 months after their first dose. If both doses are given fewer than 5 months apart, a third dose should be administered.
  • Teens and young adults ages 16 to 26 years old should get three shots. The recommended dosage schedule after the first shot is the second at 1 or 2 months and the third at 6 months.
  • Immunocompromised people ages 9 to 26 years old should get three shots. The dosing schedule is the same as for young adults.

HPV often clears on its own. In people where the virus does not go away on its own, genital warts or cancer may occur, years after infection.

The HPV vaccine can prevent many cases of:

The HPV vaccine may cause mild side effects at the injection site, such as:

  • pain
  • itching
  • bleeding
  • redness
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • a lump

It may also cause:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • fever
  • fainting

Since the HPV vaccine was not studied in people who knew they were pregnant, it shouldn’t be given to pregnant people.

If you’re feeling ill, your doctor may recommend that you wait to get the vaccine.

Some components of the vaccine are produced in baker’s yeast. If you are allergic or sensitive to yeast, you should not take the vaccine.

If you live outside the U.S., the vaccine may come in a prefilled syringe with a natural rubber latex tip. Do not take the vaccine if you’re allergic to latex.

If you have a severe allergic reaction to your first vaccine dose, do not get a second dose.

HPV infection is spread through sexual and intimate skin-to-skin contact.

The HPV vaccine is most effective when given prior to exposure to HPV. It is recommended for people of all genders at ages 11 or 12. It can be given to people as young as 9 and to adults up to age 45, in some cases.

The HPV vaccine can stop the virus from causing several types of cancer, including cervical cancer and penile cancer.

The vaccine is preventive and not a cure for HPV.