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Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women and penile cancer in men. HPV can also cause anal cancer, throat cancer, and genital warts in both men and women. Around 79 million people in the U.S. have already gotten HPV and about 14 million new infections occur every year. In addition, each year in the United States there are approximately 17,500 women and 9,300 men affected by HPV-related cancers. HPV leads to approximately 11,000 cases of cervical cancer per year killing more than 4,000 women.

HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and people infected with the virus never knew they had it. However, when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems such as genital warts and cancer.

Symptoms

Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.

Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced, very serious and hard to treat. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular screenings for cervical cancer (in addition to getting vaccinated against HPV).

Other HPV-related cancers might not have signs or symptoms until they are advanced and hard to treat. These include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).

Prevention

The HPV vaccine protects against HPV infections that cause most of the HPV-related cancers. HPV vaccination can also help prevent genital warts. Both boys and girls are recommended to receive two doses of HPV vaccine starting at 11 - 12 years of age.

This is a change from the former recommendation to receive three doses starting at ages 11-12. The CDC based this change to only two doses based on the latest science showing the effectiveness of the vaccine if given to 11-12 year olds on time. Details about the change to the recommendation are provided below to help clarify for parents:

  • The first HPV vaccine dose is routinely recommended at 11-12 years old. The second dose of the vaccine should be administered 6 to 12 months after the first dose.
  • Teens and young adults who start the series at ages 15 through 26 years will continue to need three doses of HPV vaccine to protect against cancer-causing HPV infections.
  • Adolescents aged 9 through 14 years who have already received two doses of HPV vaccine less than 5 months apart, will require a third dose.
  • Three doses are recommended for people with weakened immune systems aged 9-26 years.

The vaccine offers the greatest health benefits those who receive all three recommended doses before having any type of sexual activity. Some parents may be surprised to learn that sexual intercourse is not necessary for infection. Oral-genital and hand-genital transmission of some genital HPV types is possible. A person can become infected during their first sexual encounter. Widespread vaccination with HPV vaccine has the potential to save up to 4,000 women from cervical cancer deaths each year.

To see if your children are up-to-date on their vaccines, look at the CDC’s immunization schedule and talk to your healthcare provider.

Teens and young adults who did not get the HPV vaccine when they were younger should get it now. Young women can get HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual young men, and also for young men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get HPV vaccine when they were younger.

Read some frequently asked questions about HPV.