Is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine Right for Your Child?

The cervical cancer vaccine protects against HPV strains that cause most cervical cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. HPV causes nearly all cervical cancer.

To be most effective, the HPV vaccine should be given before a person becomes sexually active and possibly exposed to HPV. The vaccine should be given at ages 11 or 12. It is now one of the childhood immunizations recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is HPV?
More than half of all sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time in their lives. People often don’t know they have HPV as it seldom has symptoms. Certain types of HPV cause genital warts in women and men. Other types can cause cervical cancer in women and other cancers in the genital and throat areas in women and men.

What vaccines are available?
The two HPV vaccines available in the United States are Cervarix and Gardasil. Both have proven effective against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. They’ve also been shown to prevent cervical precancers.

Gardasil has some differences. It also protects against HPV types that cause most genital warts in males and females, and is tested and available for use in males ages 9 through 26. Gardasil has been shown to protect against precancers of the vulva, vagina and anus.

Who should get the vaccine?
The CDC recommends the vaccine for:

  • All girls 11 to 12 years of age, but it may be given as early as age 9
  • Girls and women age 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated or didn't complete the full series of shots

All boys aged 11 or 12 years, and males aged 13 through 21 who have not been vaccinated or didn't get the full series of shots should also be vaccinated. Only Gardasil is used to vaccinate males.

Who should not get the vaccine?
Some people should not get the Cervarix or Gardasil vaccine. Or they should wait. Here are recommendations from the CDC:

Anyone who is moderate or severely ill should wait. Those who are mildly ill when an HPV dose is planned can get the vaccine.

Anyone who has had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a component or dose of the HPV vaccine should not get it. If you are getting the Cervarix vaccine, tell your doctor if you have severe allergies, including latex allergies. If you are getting the Gardasil vaccine, tell your doctor if you have any severe yeast allergies.

The HPV vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women. Nursing moms may get the vaccine.

How is the vaccine given?
Three doses (shots) are recommended over six months, with the second dose given one to two months after the first, and the third dose given six months after the first.

What are the side effects?
The most common ones are slight pain and swelling at the injection site, headache, upset stomach and a low fever. Serious side effects are rare.

Is a Pap test still necessary?
Yes. The HPV vaccines protect against the most common strains of the virus. However, they do not protect against every type of HPV that causes cervical cancer. So even if you’ve been vaccinated, it’s still important for you to get Pap tests to find cell changes that could become cancer.