Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
But the virus usually clears on its own, without causing any damage — and often without showing any symptoms.
The HPV vaccine can prevent infection, but it’s not for everyone. Here’s what you need to know about the virus and the vaccine.
What are the risks from HPV?
HPV infection can lead to warts or cancer in the person’s genitals, mouth, or throat. There are more than 150 types of HPV, but two (types 16 and 18) are thought to cause almost 70 percent of all cervical cancer.
What are the current recommendations for cervical cancer screening?
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that people with a cervix ages 21-65 get a Pap test every three years. They also recommend that starting at age 30 and until age 65, people with a cervix get a Pap test plus HPV DNA testing to screen cells for certain high-risk types of HPV. The USPSTF does not recommend cervical cancer screening for women under 21 or women over 65. For more information, see “Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines.”
Can HPV be prevented?
Yes. Vaccines can prevent infection with the most common types of HPV, thereby reducing the risk of cervical and other cancers that are associated with high-risk strains of HPV.
The first HPV vaccine was approved in the United States in 2006. While studies have shown vaccine efficacy, longer-term data is not yet available to determine exactly how long the vaccines work to protect people.
How safe are the vaccines? What side effects can they cause?
The CDC notes that the United States currently has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history. Years of testing are required by law before a vaccine can be licensed. Once in use, vaccines are continually monitored for safety and efficacy.
The HPV vaccines are considered to be very safe, although reactions like dizziness, fainting, and soreness around the injection may occur.
As with any vaccine, patients should carefully review whether they have allergies to any of the ingredients before getting the vaccine. (The CDC has also published a guide to vaccine safety, written especially for parents.)
When should vaccines occur?
For greatest protection, the CDC recommends vaccination around age 11-12, so it has time to become effective before sexual activity begins. (There is no evidence that having the HPV vaccine encourages a person to become sexually active.)
For people under age 26 who are already sexually active, the HPV vaccine won’t affect any existing HPV infections, but it may prevent infection from a different HPV type if it’s also covered by that vaccine. Likewise, the vaccine doesn’t mean you no longer need cervical cancer screening; if you have a cervix, you should still follow the USPSTF’s screening recommendations.
Can pregnant people get vaccinated?
There have not yet been adequate studies to establish the vaccine’s safety for use by pregnant women and it is not recommended for use by pregnant women.
Where can I get the vaccine, and how much does it cost?
The vaccine is available from pediatricians, family doctors, ob/gyns, public health clinics, and family planning clinics. It is given in a two- or three-dose series that may cost more than $500 in total. Many health insurance companies cover the HPV vaccine. Uninsured children and young adults may be eligible to get it at low cost from public health departments and clinics.
Do I need my parents’ permission to get vaccinated?
The rules vary from state to state. In many states, teens are explicitly allowed to get reproductive health care (like family planning and STI treatment and prevention services) without a parent’s or guardian’s knowledge or consent. These laws are in place to reduce barriers to young people getting sensitive health care services.
If you get the vaccine from your provider using your parents’ insurance, keep in mind that they will get an Explanation of Benefits form that describes the services received.
Scarleteen has published an excellent HPV Vaccine FAQ with advice for talking with parents who have concerns about the vaccine.
For more information, see