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 genital warts, an HPV infection can cause these other problems:

  • In females, it can cause problems with the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer. HPV infection also can 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.

Click Here to Learn More About Genital Warts

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 get genital warts, but the virus is still in their system and could cause 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 from age 11 or 12 through age 26. If needed, kids can get the vaccine starting at age 9.

How Does the HPV Vaccine Work?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for people 9 to 26 years old:

  • For kids and teens ages 9–14, the vaccine is given in 2 shots over a 6- to 12-month period.
  • For teens and young adults (ages 15–26), it's given in 3 shots over a 6-month period.

It works best when people get all their shots on time. If you're under age 26 and you've missed a shot, you can still catch up. Just ask your doctor about the best way to do that.

The vaccine does not protect people against strains of HPV that might have infected them before getting the vaccine. The most effective way to prevent HPV infection is to get vaccinated before having sex for the first time. 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.

What Are the Side Effects of the HPV Vaccine?

Side effects that people get from the HPV vaccine usually are minor. They may include swelling or pain at the injection site, 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 make fainting less likely by sitting down for 15 minutes after each shot.

How Can I Protect Myself From HPV?

For people who have 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 aren't proven to protect against HPV or genital warts.

If you have questions about the vaccine or are worried about STDs, talk to your doctor.

Back to Articles


Related Articles

Genital Warts (HPV)

You've probably heard lots about sexually transmitted diseases. The good news is that STDs can be prevented. For information on how to protect yourself and how to treat genital warts, read this article.

Read More

Do I Need a Pelvic Exam if I Had the HPV Vaccine?

Find out what the experts have to say.

Read More

Can You Still Get Genital Warts If You've Had All the HPV Shots?

Find out what the experts have to say.

Read More

Do I Have to Get All My HPV Vaccine Shots?

Find out what the experts have to say.

Read More

Can Getting the HPV Vaccine Help If I Already Have Genital Warts?

Find out what the experts have to say.

Read More

Talking to Your Partner About STDs

You know you should talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) before the action starts. But what if the thought of having "the talk" makes you nervous? These tips can help.

Read More

Telling Your Partner You Have an STD

People who have STDs might feel apprehensive about discussing their disease with a partner. Here are some tips on talking to a partner when you have an STD.

Read More

Condoms

Condoms may be a good birth control option for couples who are responsible enough to use one each time and people who want protection against STDs.

Read More

Talking to Your Partner About Condoms

Some people - even those who are having sex - are embarrassed by the topic of condoms. Here are some tips for talking about condoms with your partner.

Read More

5 Tips for Surviving Shots

If you're afraid of shots, you're not alone. Next time your doc asks you to roll up your sleeve, try these tips.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

Search our entire site.