Who Should Get the HPV Vaccination and Why

Written By:Stacy Simon
little girl smiles at her mom after getting a vaccination

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are more than 150 types of HPV, and HPV infection is very common. In fact, about 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV every year. Most of the time, infection with HPV doesn’t cause health problems and just goes away on its own. People usually don’t even know they have it. But in some cases, HPV doesn’t go away. When that happens, some types of HPV can cause genital warts, while other types can lead to cancer.

The HPV vaccine can protect people from getting the types of HPV infections that cause 6 different kinds of cancer. The vaccinations work best when given to people when they’re young. Girls and boys should ideally begin getting the vaccine series at age 11 or 12.

Who should get the vaccine?

The American Cancer Society recommends that girls and boys begin getting the vaccine series at age 11 or 12. The vaccine causes a better immune response at this age than during the teenage years. Children are also likely still seeing their doctor regularly and getting other vaccinations at this age.

For the HPV vaccine to work best, it is also important to get it before coming into contact with the virus. That’s why the vaccine is recommended for children before they grow up and become sexually active. The vaccination series can be started as early as age 9. Children who get the HPV vaccine will make proteins called antibodies that fight the virus and have long-lasting protection.

For those who did not get vaccinated at ages 11-12, or who did not complete the series, the recommendation is that females ages 13-26 and males ages 13-21 be vaccinated. Men can also get the vaccination up to age 26. For people 22 to 26 years old who have not started the vaccines, or who have started but not completed the series, it's important to know that vaccination at older ages is less effective in lowering cancer risk.

How do people get HPV?

HPV gets passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected part of the body. It can be spread through sexual contact. You cannot get HPV from toilet seats, swimming pools, or sharing food. But almost everyone who is not vaccinated will get HPV at some time in their lives.

Vaccinating your child against HPV protects them from getting infected with HPV when they’re older. Even if someone waits until marriage to have sex, they could still get infected with HPV from their spouse. And getting the vaccine does not lead to changes in sexual behavior. Studies show young people who get the vaccine do not start having sex any earlier than those who did not get the vaccine.

How many people get cancer because of HPV?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV causes about 31,500 new cases of cancer every year in the US. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The virus is also known to cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat.

And the problem of HPV infection seems to be growing among men. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that more men are becoming infected with an oral type of HPV infection that can cause throat and tongue cancers. According to the report, men are now getting HPV-related oral cancers at a faster rate than women are getting HPV-related cervical cancers. The researchers say this trend is expected to continue and not reverse until after the year 2060.

Is the vaccine safe?

Vaccines to prevent HPV continue to be shown that they are safe and effective. More than 270 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been given worldwide, including 100 million doses in the US. Studies continue to show it is very safe. Some people have temporary side effects when they get the vaccine such as a headache, fever, or pain, redness, or swelling where the shot was given. A person may have a more serious allergic reaction if they’re allergic to yeast or any other ingredient in the vaccine.

Some parents are worried about vaccine ingredients, one being aluminum. There is aluminum in the HPV vaccine, but it’s a safe amount. Aluminum-containing vaccines have been used for years and in more than 1 billion people. In fact, we come in contact with aluminum every day. It’s in foods we eat, water, and even breast milk. Every day, babies, children, and adults come into contact with more aluminum than what’s in the vaccine.

Some parents are worried that the vaccine could cause fertility problems (problems having children). However, research has not shown that HPV vaccines cause any fertility problems. In fact, by preventing cervical cancer, the vaccine can help protect women from fertility problems caused by cervical cancer treatment. 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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