The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine is a critical addition to your immunization options. This particular vaccine protects you against certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). But because of the strains it targets, HPV vaccines will also protect you from some cervical cancers (as well as a few other cancers).
In other words, the HPV vaccine can protect you against specific sexually transmitted infections and against the cancers that those infections sometimes generate. Unfortunately, HPV is exceptionally common, infecting about 13 million per year. According to one CDC survey, 45.2% of adults aged 18-59 had contracted genital HPV–including the high-risk versions of this disease. Not surprisingly, then, most providers recommend that you administer the first of two HPV vaccine doses as soon as possible after the age of 11.
Why Should You Get the HPV Vaccine?
The HPV is quite common in the United States–and it’s likely that just about everyone will end up with some form of this virus throughout their lifetimes. In many cases, those with HPV will not notice or present any symptoms. The virus is generally spread from skin-to-skin contact–and something like 42 million Americans are currently infected.
While many forms of HPV are relatively harmless, there are some specific strains that can go on to cause cancer. For women in particular, HPV has been linked to cervical cancer. In fact, HPV origins account for 91% of all cervical cancers.
HPV vaccines can successfully prevent these cancers, as well as the spread of the HPV strains that cause those cancers in the first place. This can give many individuals a significant amount of peace of mind and protection.
When Should You Get the HPV Vaccine?
In some ways, you’re never too old to get the HPV vaccine. However, there are some caveats to that. The ideal age to get an HPV vaccine is between the ages of 11-12. It’s recommended that anyone age 26 or under also get the vaccine.
The vaccine is still approved for those between the ages of 26-45. However, it’s not always recommended. That’s because many people over that age have already contracted some strains of HPV, making the vaccine less effective. This can diminish the benefit of the HPV vaccine–but it doesn’t mean that there are no benefits. So, if you’re over the age of 26, you should talk to your OBGYN or Midwife about whether the HPV vaccine is right for you.
Dosing will increase as you get older. Here’s how that breaks down:
- Ages 9-14: This age group responds well to a two-dose schedule.
- Ages 15-26: This age group will require a three-dose vaccine schedule.
Typically, doses are scheduled at least six months apart. While the first dose does provide a significant amount of protection, the full scheduled doses are needed to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
Many patients have questions about who should get the HPV vaccine and why. Here are some of the most common:
- Should men and women receive the HPV Vaccine? Yes. The HPV vaccine can prevent some cancers in men, too (i.e. penile, anal and throat). Additionally, the more individuals who are vaccinated, the less these versions of HPV are able to spread.
- Should I get the vaccine even if I have tested positive for cervical cancer DNA? Yes. Even if you have tested positive for cervical cancer DNA, the HPV vaccine can still prove beneficial and protective against other HPV types.
- Do I need to start all over if I miss a dose of HPV vaccine? Nope! You can pick right up where you left off.
Concerns and Questions Regarding HPV Vaccines
There are several concerns patients have regarding HPV vaccines. Some of the most common are the following:
Is HPV the Same Disease as Herpes?
The disease commonly known as herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), and it’s often conflated with HPV. That’s because there are multiple strains of each disease, and many strains cause sores. However, HPV and HSV are two different viruses. The HPV vaccine does not offer any protection against the herpes virus.
Does the HPV Vaccine Lead to an Increase in Sexual Activity?
Some people have expressed a concern that giving a young individual the HPV vaccine might encourage carelessness regarding sexual activity and safe sex. However, study after study has found no evidence to support this claim. Instead, providing kids (and adults) with the HPV vaccine simply leads to a decrease in HPV and types of cancer.
What Are the Side Effects of the HPV Vaccine?
Like any medication, the HPV vaccine may produce some side effects in a small portion of the population. Those side effects may include:
- Swelling, redness, or pain near the injection site.
- Dizziness or fainting (though, this is more common in adolescents)
If you have questions or concerns about the possible complications from HPV vaccine, talk to your OBGYN or Midwife to get personalized answers. For the vast majority of people, the HPV vaccine is incredibly safe and effective.
Does the HPV Vaccine Mean I Don’t Have to Get a Pap Smear?
A pap smear is a routine test designed to check for the first signs of cervical cancer (or the cellular changes that lead to cervical cancer). So you might be inclined to think that after an HPV vaccine, you won’t need a pap smear anymore. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true.
While the HPV vaccine will prevent the majority of cervical cancers, it won’t prevent all of them. As a result, your OBGYN or Midwife will still want to catch any possible cervical cancer as early in the process as possible. This means that even after your HPV vaccine, a regular pap smear will still be recommended.
How Successful is the HPV Vaccine?
Among women who have received the HPV vaccine, over 80% have seen a drop in genital warts as well as an 80% drop in cervical cancers. That’s a significant amount of protection–and the rates of protection tend to increase as the vaccination age gets younger.
That’s not because the vaccine loses potency as you age. It’s because as you age, you’re more likely to have already encountered the human papillomavirus. That’s why, for many patients, the earlier you can receive the vaccine the better.
The HPV Vaccines Offers Significant Protection
Because the human papillomavirus is so common–often transmitted with no symptoms–your best line of defense is to prevent transmission in the first place. While the HPV vaccine will not prevent all strains of HPV, it can prevent those most likely to cause cancer in the future.
In terms of protecting your overall health, the HPV vaccine can produce impressively successful results. To find out more about how the HPV vaccine can impact you and your health, talk to your OBGYN or Midwife.