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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 30, 2021.

HPV vaccine and cancer prevention

Can a vaccine prevent cancer? In the case of cervical, genital and certain throat cancers, the answer is yes. The HPV vaccine, also known by the brand name Gardasil®, helps prevent the cancer-causing human papillomavirus. The HPV vaccine is recommended for people of both genders as young as 9 and approved through age 45.

What is HPV?

What is HPV? HPV is a virus that spreads through skin-to-skin contact, typically during sexual activity. Within the many different types of HPV, some pose more of a risk than others. While some are harmless and go away on their own, two types of HPV cause genital warts, and several other types may lead to cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (back of the throat), penile, vulvar and vaginal cancers.

Regular Pap tests screen for changes in cervical cells, which are often caused by HPV. If changes are detected during a Pap smear, an HPV test is used to confirm the presence of the virus and course of treatment.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends:

  • Pap tests every three years for those age 21-29
  • Pap and HPV tests every five years or Pap tests alone every three years for people age 30-65

HPV-related cancers develop slowly over time, and it’s possible to have HPV for a long time without showing any signs or symptoms. There are no regular screening recommendations to prevent penile, vulvar, anal or oropharyngeal cancers. These cancers are usually diagnosed through a physical exam when a patient has symptoms. People with weakened immune systems, such as those living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), may be more at risk for HPV-related cancers.

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine comprises a series of two to three shots, depending on the age, designed to prevent various strains of the virus. One HPV vaccine is available to U.S. patients: Gardasil®. This vaccine is up to 99 percent effective at preventing HPV infections that cause cancer, according to ACOG. They’re also effective at preventing some non-cancer-causing types of HPV, like the type that causes genital warts. The vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to create antibodies that ward off HPV infections. HPV vaccines don’t actually contain the virus. Instead, they contain virus-like particles (VLPs), so the vaccines don’t “give” you HPV.

The vaccine is routinely offered to children regardless of gender at age 11 or 12, but it’s safe for children as young as age 9 and approved through age 45.

  • For children and teenagers younger than 15, the HPV vaccine is delivered in two doses, six to 12 months apart.
  • For teenagers and adults ages 15-26, the HPV vaccine is delivered in three doses—the second dose one to two months after the first dose, and the third dose six months after the first dose.

While the vaccine is recommended for anyone through age 26, it is approved for use through age 45. Those who are pregnant should wait until afterward to get the vaccine. Anyone older than 26 should ask his or her doctor whether the vaccine is the right choice. In general, the vaccine is more effective for younger people because they’re less likely to have been exposed to the virus already through sexual activity.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

For most people, the HPV vaccine is considered safe. Like other vaccines, these are thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy before becoming available. Since their introduction in the 2000s, studies have overwhelmingly supported the safety of HPV vaccines, and many people have received them without issues.

Adverse events (bad reactions or side effects) may occur in a small number of people who receive the HPV vaccine. The most common adverse reactions to HPV vaccines are:

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Pain, swelling and redness at the injection site

While fainting isn’t common, the doctor may recommend sitting or lying down for 15 minutes after getting the shot to prevent injuries.

HPV vaccines may cause allergic reactions in some people. In the worst case, this allergic reaction may cause anaphylaxis. People who have experienced allergic reactions to other vaccines or are allergic to any of the components that make up the HPV vaccine, including yeast, are advised not to get it.

Other ways to prevent HPV

Because HPV is spread skin to skin—usually during vaginal, anal or oral sex—doctors recommend using condoms and dental dams (latex or polyurethane barriers) to help reduce contact and prevent transmission.