The human papillomavirus (HPV) affects nearly 80 million people in the United States. The virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact or through sexual activity.

Although HPV often goes away on its own, certain types can cause problems, from genital warts to cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine that can protect children and adults from HPV-related diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that preteens receive the vaccine at around age 11 or 12. This ensures that they’re protected against HPV before they’re likely to have exposure to the virus. You can get the vaccine until age 26.

Pros

  • The HPV vaccine can protect against HPV types 16 and 18, both of which can lead to certain cancers.
  • Some vaccines can also protect against strains known to cause genital warts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three vaccines to protect against HPV. These vaccines are Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. Each one involves a series of three injections into a muscle over six months. To fully benefit from the vaccine, it’s essential to receive all three injections.

Each of these vaccines protects against HPV types 16 and 18. These two types are considered high-risk infections because they can lead to cervical, vulvar, or anal cancer.

The Gardasil vaccines also protect against strains 6 and 11. These two strains are known to cause genital warts.

Overall, these are the major pros of the HPV vaccine: it can protect against cancer and genital warts.

Cons

  • The HPV vaccine can cause side effects. However, these are rare. To date, no serious side effects have been shown to be caused by the vaccines.
  • The HPV vaccine protects against some types of HPV-related cancers, but not all.

Probably the most important “con” for the HPV vaccine is potential side effects. That said, side effects aren’t common.

Most people receive the HPV vaccine without having any serious side effects. Mild to moderate side effects occur more often but are still uncommon. Mild to moderate side effects can include:

  • pain or swelling at the injection site
  • slight fever
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • joint pain
  • fainting
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain in the abdomen
  • diarrhea

If you get the vaccine and have any of these side effects or other unusual symptoms, or if the symptoms persist, you should talk to your doctor.

One other con of the HPV vaccines is that they’re limited in what they do:

  • The vaccines don’t prevent all HPV-related cancers, only some. Therefore, it’s vital that women still get a routine Pap test to check for any signs of cervical cancer.
  • The vaccines don’t protect against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or treat existing HPV-related illnesses or infections. So it’s also very important to remember that you’ll still need to use condoms or other protection during sex to help avoid STIs.

Who’s most at risk of getting HPV if they’re not vaccinated? There are several factors that can put you at increased risk for contracting HPV if you’re not vaccinated. These include having:

  • unprotected sex
  • multiple sexual partners
  • wounded or opened skin
  • contact with contagious warts
  • habit of using smoking or chewing tobacco, which weakens the immune system
  • compromised immune system
  • poor nutrition

Fortunately, many of these risk factors can be controlled. In fact, controlling three of these risk factors are the top three ways to prevent HPV.

Overall, the best way to prevent HPV is by getting vaccinated. But other ways you can prevent getting the virus include the following:

  • Use protection during sex. Condoms, dental dams, and other types of barrier protection can lower your risk of contracting HPV.
  • For women: Get routine screenings for cervical cancer. Doctors can find abnormal cell changes in women ages 21 to 65 with regular cervical cancer screenings done through Pap tests.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. One study linked folic acid deficiency to increased HPV infection. Another linked high intake of plant-based nutrients (including vitamin C) to a reduced risk of precancerous cervical cells.

Although HPV generally goes away on its own, certain strains of the virus can develop into something more serious, such as cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine can protect children as young as 11 years old and adults up to 26 years old. That’s the biggest pro of the vaccine, while rare side effects are the biggest con.

If you have questions about the HPV vaccine, including its pros or cons, the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor. They can tell you more about the vaccine and advise you on whether it’s right for you or your child.