Can the HPV vaccine prevent cancer?

Yes. The HPV vaccine can prevent cancer in people of all genders. Read on to learn more about HPV, associated diseases, and how the HPV vaccine can help protect you and those around you.

What is HPV?

HPV, or human papillomavirus, refers to a group of over 200 viruses that are extremely common in humans. In fact, most humans have been exposed to HPV, and many strains are spread through non-sexual contact.

When it comes to classifying HPV, strains are generally classified as “high-risk” or “low-risk.” Most strains of HPV are “low-risk,” meaning they do not cause disease (although some can cause warts). To date, there are 14 strains that are considered “high-risk” that have been identified as causing HPV-associated disease. Of these 14, two (HPV16 and HPV18) cause the most HPV-related cancer. All of these “high-risk” strains are spread through sexual contact. This includes intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) as well as intimate skin-to-skin contact.

Who does HPV affect?

Although HPV is generally associated with cervical health and cervical cancer, HPV affects all humans. Often, HPV infections go away by themselves, but other times they can lead to warts, upper respiratory lesions, or cancer.

What cancers are caused by HPV?

HPV infection, particularly infections with “high-risk” strains, has been associated with cancers of the cervix, the vagina, the vulva, the penis, the anus, and the mouth and throat. These cancers can affect all people and not just those who have a cervix.

What is the HPV vaccine? Do I need it if I get regular pap smears?

The current HPV vaccine given in the US (and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is Gardasil 9. Gardasil 9 is given to people of all genders and offers protection from 9 common strains of HPV that can lead to genital warts and cancers. If given before age 15, it can be given in two doses. If given to older teens or young adults, three doses are needed.

Pap smears, although an important part of preventative sexual health for people with a cervix, are not a substitute for HPV vaccinations. Pap smears are used to detect cervical changes that may result from HPV infections and cannot prevent infection.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all young people aged 11-12 receive the HPV vaccine. However, the vaccine is approved for people aged 9-45.

Given HPV’s commonality, it is ideal to receive the vaccine early in adolescence. Your provider would be happy to discuss your risk of new HPV infection with you and evaluate you for receiving the HPV vaccine.

Are there any risks associated with the HPV vaccine?

Yes, but they are very small. The most common side effect is soreness and redness where the vaccine is given. As always, your provider would be happy to discuss any specific concerns you have surround the vaccine.

Caitlin Heston BSN, RN, C-EFM

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Bowie, MD 20716
(301) 249-4090

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Greenbelt, MD 20770
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