Back to Health Topics A-Z Homepage
What is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. About 20 million people in the United States have HPV infection. Another 6.2 million get HPV each year. HPV infection can cause
genital warts and cervical cancers, anal and oropharyngeal cancers, as well as some other less common cancers, such as vulvar, vaginal and penile cancer. HPV infection early in life can lead to cancer many years later, making the need for prevention that much more important.
Who gets HPV infection and how is it spread?
- Anyone can get HPV once they become sexually active.
- Most sexually active people get HPV infection at some time in their lives and most get it when they are younger and first become sexually active.
- HPV is spread through direct, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, even when the person has no symptoms.
- Often the contact occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
What are the symptoms of HPV infection?
- Most people have no symptoms of HPV infection, but can still pass it on to another person.
- Some people with HPV may develop genital warts.
- HPV infections that cause cancer may not become apparent until many years later and may not show symptoms until the cancer is advanced
How can HPV be prevented?
The best way to prevent HPV is with vaccination. People should get the vaccine before they become sexually active as they will get its full benefit if they have not yet been exposed to HPV.
There are two licensed HPV vaccines, Cervarix® and Gardasil®, which can be used to protect females against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil is also licensed for use in males and protects against most genital warts and anal cancers in both females and males.
If you chose to be sexually active, condoms may be helpful in preventing the spread of HPV. However, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom – so condoms may not completely protect against HPV.
► See Health Bulletin #96: Protect Your Child from HPV
Other languages: [En Español] [中文] [عربي] [Creole] [정의] [ Français] [বাংলা] [Русский] [اُردو]
Who should receive the HPV vaccine?
The vaccine is recommended for all girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 12. It is important to vaccinate your child now, before he or she is old enough to worry about HPV.
Females aged 13 through 26 and males aged 13 through 21 who have not previously received the vaccine, should be vaccinated. High risk males aged 22 through 26 should also receive HPV vaccine (see below). The vaccine may be given to pre-teens as early as 9 years of age.
Both vaccines are given as 3 shots over 6 months. Girls and boys should receive the full series to be
While the vaccine works best when it is given before having any kind of sex, teens and young adults can still benefit from the HPV vaccine even if they are sexually active.
Why should the vaccine be given so young?
Full protection from all the HPV types included in the vaccine can be obtained if the vaccine is given prior to initiation of sexual activity and exposure to HPV. Studies show that antibody levels are higher for adolescents 9 to 15 years of age compared to older individuals. Evidence shows that protection is long-lasting.
Are there populations at higher risk of HPV-related health problems?
Certain populations are at higher risk for some HPV-related health problems. This includes men who have sex with men and people with weak immune systems (including those who have HIV/AIDS).
What are the side effects of the HPV vaccine?
Several studies have shown that the HPV vaccine is very safe. It has been widely used in the U.S. and around the world since 2006. Any common side effects are typically mild, such as soreness where the shot was given and fever, headache, and nausea. Reports that the HPV vaccine causes serious health problems, such as mental retardation, paralysis, or death, among others, are not true. Serious side effects are rare.
Who should not receive HPV vaccine?
- Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to any component of HPV vaccine, or to a previous dose of HPV vaccine, should not get the vaccine. Tell your doctor if the person getting vaccinated has any severe allergies, including an allergy to latex (for Cervarix) or yeast (for Gardasil).
- HPV vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women. However, receiving HPV vaccine when pregnant is not a reason to consider terminating the pregnancy. Women who are breast feeding may get the vaccine.
- Any woman who learns she was pregnant when she got this HPV vaccine is encouraged to contact the manufacturer’s HPV in pregnancy registry at 888-452-9622 for Cervarix or 800-986-8999 for Gardasil. This will help us learn how pregnant women respond to the vaccine.
- People who are mildly ill when a dose of HPV vaccine is planned can still be vaccinated. People with a moderate or severe illness should wait until they are better.
How is HPV treated?
There is no treatment for the virus itself. However, the body’s immune system clears HPV on its own within two years in about 90% of cases. There are treatments for the diseases that HPV can cause:
- Genital warts can be removed by prescribed medications applied by the patient him or herself or by a health care professional. Some warts can also disappear on their own.
- HPV-related cancers are most treatable when they are diagnosed and treated early. Women should have routine cervical Pap testing. Certain people at higher risk for anal cancer may need routine anal Pap tests. This should be discussed with your primary care provider.
Call 311 for:
Free, confidential STD exams and treatment, including Pap testing, are available at Health Department clinics in all 5 boroughs of New York City. Health insurance, proof of citizenship, and parental consent are NOT required. See a list of clinics and hours online or call 311.
- More information on where your child can be vaccinated or to find a medical provider for your child.
- Help finding a doctor or clinic to do a Pap test.
Last Updated: July 19, 2013