What Is HPV and Why Is It a Problem?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can cause cervical cancer as well as genital warts. It can spread through sex and from some types of skin-to skin-contact.

An HPV infection also can cause these other problems:

  • In females, it can lead to cervical cancer. HPV infection also can lead to cancer of the vagina, vulva, anus, mouth, and throat.
  • In males, HPV infection may lead to cancer of 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 some kinds of cancer and genital warts, 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 starting from age 9 to 11 through age 26.

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, 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 rare 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?

The most important way to protect against HPV infection is by getting the HPV vaccine.

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.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.