Understanding HPV

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 will often go away on its own, certain types can cause cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine that can protect children, women, and men from HPV-related diseases. The recommendation is for preteen girls and boys to receive the vaccine 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 up until age 26.

What are the benefits of the HPV vaccine?

Pros

  1. The HPV vaccine can protect against HPV types 16 and 18, which both can lead to certain cancers.
  2. 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. This includes Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. Each one involves a series of three injections into a muscle over six months. In order to truly 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, vaginal, or anal cancer.

Some of the vaccines, such as Gardasil, also protect against strains 6 and 11. These two strains are known to cause genital warts.

Does the HPV vaccine have side effects?

Many people can receive the vaccine without experiencing any serious side effects. You may experience mild to moderate side effects after your vaccination. This can include:

  • pain or swelling at the shot site
  • a slight fever
  • a headache
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • joint pain
  • fainting
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea

If you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms or if the symptoms persist, you should consult your doctor.

The HPV vaccines don’t prevent all HPV-related cancers, so it's vital for women to get a routine Pap test. HPV vaccines also don’t protect against other sexually transmitted infections or treat existing HPV-related illnesses or infections.

Risk factors to consider

If you aren’t vaccinated, several factors can put you at increased risk for contracting HPV. This includes having:

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

Other ways to prevent HPV

The top way to prevent HPV is by getting vaccinated. 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.
  • Get routine screenings for cervical cancer. Doctors can find abnormal cell changes in women ages 21 to 65 through regular cervical cancer screenings.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Research links folic acid deficiency to increased HPV infection and low serum retinol levels to precancerous conditions.

The bottom line

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 men women up to 26 years old. You should also use condoms and other protections during sex, get routine cancer screenings, and follow a healthy lifestyle to limit exposure.

Keep reading: How to talk to your kids about sex »