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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Frequently Asked Questions

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is a virus which causes infection by entering cells. Once inside the cell it takes over and starts to copy itself. The copies then infect other nearby cells.

Is the HPV infection common?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Almost everyone who is sexually active may get an HPV infection at some point in his or her life.

Are there different types of HPV infections?

There are over 100 types of HPV. Around 40 types infect the genital area of men and women and are spread by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Genital HPV can occur even if you do not have sexual intercourse.

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?

Genital HPV often has no signs or symptoms. Most times the infected patients are unaware they have HPV and can unknowingly spread the infection to others.

What diseases are caused by HPV?

  • Genital warts – There are around a dozen types of HPV that can cause warts (condyloma). These types are called low-risk types. Most cases are caused by two low risk types of HPV, type 6 and type 11. Genital warts can appear outside or inside the vagina or the penis and can spread to nearby skin. They can also grow around the anus, on the vulva or the cervix. Genital warts are not cancerous and can be removed with medication or surgery.
  • Cancer – At least 13 types of HPV are linked to cancer of the cervix, vagina, anus, penis, mouth and throat. Types of HPV that cause cancer are known as high-risk types. Many of the cases of HPV related cancer are caused by just two types of HPV, type 16 and type 18.

Does being infected with HPV mean I am going to get genital warts or cancer?

No, in most people the immune system fights high and low-risk HPV infections and clears them from the body. You can develop abnormal pap smears years after you have been exposed making it hard to know when you first became exposed to the HPV virus.  It is important to note that not all women who test positive for HPV will have abnormal pap smears at anytime in their lives but the presence of HPV does make it a possibility.

What happens if my immune system does not fight off my HPV infection?

Infections that are not cleared from the body are called persistent infections. A persistent infection with an HPV type can cause cells to become abnormal and lead to a condition called precancer. It usually takes years for this to happen. Cervical cancer screening can detect signs of abnormal cell changes of the cervix and allows early treatment so they do not become cancer.  There is no way to know which women who have tested positive for high risk HPV will develop precancerous changes.  It is important to follow any instructions for further testing that you have been given by your provider.

What is the best way to protect against the HPV infection?

The best way to protect against the HPV infection is to get the HPV vaccine. Gardasil 9 protects against 9 HPV types.

Who should get the HPV vaccine and when?

Both girls and boys should get the HPV vaccine. The vaccines are given as a shot in the upper arm. To get the most protection, you need to have either 2 or 3 doses of the vaccine depending on the age at which the series is started.

Vaccinations work best when it is done before the person is sexually active and exposed to HPV, but it can still reduce the risk of getting HPV if given after a person has become sexually active. The ideal age for the HPV vaccination is 11 or 12 years, but it can be given starting at 9 years and up to 26 years.

The CDC recommends that 11 to 12 year olds receive 2 doses of the HPV vaccine at least 6 months apart. Teens and young adults who start the series later, at ages 15 through 26 years need 3 doses of the HPV vaccine to protect against cancer causing HPV infection.

How effective is the HPV vaccine?

Studies show that getting all the recommended doses of the HPV vaccine before you are sexually active can reduce your risk of getting certain types of HPV-related cancer by up to 99%. If you have had sex, you may already be infected with one or more types of HPV, but you can still get the vaccine if you are under 26 years of age. The vaccine may help prevent the other types of HPV infections you are not infected with that are included in the vaccination.

Does the HPV vaccine cause any side effects?

Millions of people have been vaccinated against HPV since the vaccine became available. There have been no reports of severe side effects or bad reactions to the vaccine. The most common side effect of the vaccine is soreness and redness where the shot was given.

Do I still need regular cervical cancer screening if I have gotten the HPV vaccine?

Yes. The HPV vaccination helps prevent HPV infection of the 9 strains but it is not a cure for an infection that has already occurred. Women who have been vaccinated still need to have regular cancer screening as recommended for their age group and health history.

In addition to the HPV vaccine, how can I protect myself against the HPV infection?

Even if you get the vaccine, it is still important to take other steps to protect yourself against HPV and other sexually transmitted infections:

  • Limit the number of sexual partners. The more partners you have over the course of your life, the greater your risk of infection.
  • Use a male or female condom to reduce your risk of infection when you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. But be aware that condoms cover only a small percentage of skin and do not completely protect against HPV infection. HPV can be passed from person to person by touching infected areas not covered by a condom. These areas may include skin in the genital or anal areas.

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