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HPV Vaccine

HPV at a Glance

  • A very common infection
  • A few types can lead to cervical and other cancers.
  • Treatment available for cell changes in the cervix caused by HPV
  • Spread easily by skin-to-skin contact
  • There are ways to reduce your risk of getting HPV

Frequently Asked Questions about the HPV Vaccine

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What is HPV?

HPV stands for the human papillomavirus. If left untreated, this virus can lead to some forms of genital cancers and warts in both women and men. The virus can infect the throat or genital areas such as the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum. HPV is easily transmitted through skin-to-skin and sexual contact.

There are many strands of HPV. The HPV vaccine protects against the strands of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer - the second-most common type of cancer among women worldwide - as well as many forms of genital warts. This vaccine is given in a series of three shots administered over six months.

What is the HPV Vaccine?

The vaccine protects against HPV for at least five years and it may last much longer. In some cases a booster shot may be needed. The vaccine is not a treatment for HPV. The HPV vaccine works best in people who have not yet had sex or been exposed to HPV, but even those who have had sex can benefit from the vaccine.

Planned Parenthood offers the HPV vaccine to those ages 18 - 45. No matter how old you are, you should talk with a health care provider to learn if the HPV vaccine could benefit you or your child.

Studies show that the HPV vaccine is safe. The most common side effects are soreness, redness, swelling or itching around the area where the shot is given. Some may experience a mild fever. These symptoms do not last long and pass on their own.

What else should I know about HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types produce plantar warts on the feet and common hand warts. About 40 types of HPV can infect the genital area: the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum.

Genital HPV infections are very common. HPV is so common that about half of all men and more than 75 percent of women have HPV at some point in their lives. But most people who have HPV don't know it.

  • Most HPV infections have no harmful effect at all.
  • Some types of HPV may cause genital warts. These are called low-risk types of HPV.
  • Some types of HPV may cause cell changes that sometimes lead to cervical cancer and certain other genital and throat cancers. These are called high-risk types.

Although most HPV infections go away within eight to 13 months, some will not. HPV infections that do not go away can "hide" in the body for years and not be detected. That's why it is impossible to know exactly when someone got infected, how long they've been infected, or who passed the infection to them.

If you have HPV, you should not be ashamed or afraid. Most people who have had sex have HPV at some point in their lives. And most infections go away on their own.

Does HPV cause cancer?

Yes, high-risk types of genital HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and throat. Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV.

Most HPV infections go away by themselves and don't cause cancer. But, abnormal cells can develop when high-risk types of HPV don't go away. If these abnormal cells are not detected and treated, then they can lead to cancer.

Most of us recover from HPV infections with no health problems at all. It is not fully known why some people develop a long-term HPV infection, pre-cancerous abnormal cell changes, or cancer. But we do know that women who have diseases that make it difficult for them to fight infections are at higher risk of cervical cancer. We also know that cigarette smoking increases the risk of cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms of high-risk HPV?

There aren't any HPV symptoms for high-risk types of HPV in women or men. Most people feel fine even when they have cell changes caused by HPV.

How can I know if I have high-risk HPV?

Because HPV is such a common infection that usually goes away on its own, there is often no reason for you to even worry about whether or not you have it. Most people never know when they have HPV.

There is an HPV test for women, but it is only used in certain situations. Health care providers may recommend the HPV test for women as a follow-up to a Pap test that finds abnormal cells, or when a woman over 30 has a Pap test with unclear results.

If a woman does find out she has HPV, she usually finds out as a result of having an abnormal Pap test result. Pap tests are very important tests for finding abnormal cells on the cervix that are caused by HPV. As of today, there is no screening available for men.

HPV testing is not recommended for all women because HPV is very common and usually goes away without causing any health problems. For women age 30 or older, a test for HPV can be done at the same time as a Pap test. If both results are normal, a woman has a very low risk of developing cervical cancer. She will not need a Pap and HPV test for five years. Some women age 30 or older see this choice as more appealing than having a Pap test every three years.

Is there a treatment for high-risk HPV?

There is currently no treatment to cure HPV itself. Most HPV infections are harmless, do not require treatment, and go away by themselves. Treatment is available for the abnormal cell changes in the cervix that are caused by HPV. Common treatments include colposcopy, cryotherapy, and LEEP.

How does HPV spread?

HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

How can I prevent getting or spreading HPV?
  • Get the HPV vaccine. It can protect women against two types of the HPV that cause 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer.
  • Abstain from sex play that involves skin-to-skin contact.
  • If you choose to have vaginal or anal intercourse, use condoms every time. They can reduce the risk of HPV. They are not as effective against HPV as they are against other infections such as chlamydia and HIV. But they greatly reduce the risk of HPV infection. You can use condoms, Sheer Glyde dams, dental dams, or plastic wrap during oral sex to further reduce the risk.

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