January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month. In that spirit, we’re here with the facts on the HPV vaccine, one of the tools you can use to promote the health of your very own cervix!
What is HPV and why does it matter?
HPV is the human papillomavirus. There are 40 different types of HPV. It is a sexually transmitted virus and some of the types cause genital warts and some of the types of cervical cancer in women. HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will encounter HPV at some point. The body usually clears it within two years, without causing major problems. However, 10% of people don’t fend off the virus entirely, and that is when problems can arise. The good news? There is a vaccine that can prevent infection with HPV.
When should you get the vaccine?
The vaccine works by giving you immunity BEFORE you ever encounter the virus. It’s like getting the flu shot. It doesn’t work if you get the vaccine after you’re exposed. For this reason, doctors recommend that girls (and boys) get vaccinated between 9-12 years old, before any sexual activity that could expose you to HPV happens.
What if you didn’t get it when you were a kid?
No matter how old you are, if you get it before becoming sexually active it will still protect you. The current guidelines recommend you can get it up to the age of 26.
How are you protected from HPV?
There are 2 major strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Both types of the vaccine, Cervarix and Gardasil, protect you from these 2 strains. Gardasil has advantage of protecting you from the 2 most common strains that cause genital warts. Because there are 40 strains and it only protects you from the 4 most common, you can still get warts or cancer after getting vaccinated if you don’t protect yourself. But your risk of cancer is a lot less.
Can you get genital warts or cancer from the vaccine?
No. The vaccine contains proteins from the virus, but not the actual virus. So, there is no chance of catching HPV from the shots.
How often do you have to get the vaccine?
Both Gardasil and Cervarix are given as part of a 3 shot series. The second dose should be given 1-2 months after you get your first shot. The last dose should be given 6 months after the first shot.
What if you forget to get your second or third dose? Do you have to start over?
No. It’s best to get it on the recommended schedule. But if you are late with a dose you don’t have to start all over. Just continue to get your second or third dose when you remember.
Do you need to get a booster (refresh) shot?
It looks like the HPV vaccine protects for long-term effects. Recent studies have shown that women are still protected ten years after getting vaccinated. So far it doesn’t look like any further shots are needed once you finish your original series. Because widespread use of the vaccine is a relatively new occurrence and scientists are still collecting data, you should check in with your doc over the years to see if anything has changed.
What are the side effects of the shot?
Most people report that the only effects are some pain or redness at the injection site in your arm. Some people get headaches after receiving the vaccine or a low-grade fever. There can be major side effects, but they are very rare. Talk to your doctor about these when you are learning about the vaccine.
Does it really work?
Since 2006 when doctors started to recommend the vaccine, the incidence of HPV in teenage girls has dropped by over 56%! They’ve also shown fewer cases of genital warts in teens and fewer precancerous changes. Great news!
One more thing.
The HPV vaccine doesn’t prevent pregnancy or protect you from every strain of HPV (and they don’t protect against other STDs). Condoms or other barrier methods are still necessary, both for full HPV protection and to protect you from other sexually transmitted infections like HIV, herpes, and chlamydia.