HPV Vaccine (Gardasil®)

Young women's version of this guide


There are about 150 different types of HPV (Human Papillomavirus) and more than 40 are sexually transmitted. Researchers keep track of the different types of HPV by identifying them with numbers – such as 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Some types cause genital warts, others cause pre-cancerous changes (cellular changes that can lead to cancer of the cervix later). In rare cases, the virus can cause other types of cancers to the oropharynx (i.e. throat, base of the tongue, tonsils), anus, vulva, vagina, and penis.

The HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer and other conditions caused by certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Am I at risk to get HPV?

If you have had sexual contact or plan to have sexual contact in your lifetime, you’re at risk for getting HPV. Any person who has sexual contact—no matter what race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—can get HPV. In fact, nearly every person living in the United States, who is sexually active will develop HPV (at some point in their lives) if they have NOT been vaccinated against it. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. However, most people don’t know they have HPV because they haven’t had symptoms.

HPV is usually spread by direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is infected with HPV. Condoms and dental dams (used as a barrier during oral sex) can help protect against HPV, but they aren’t perfect because HPV can be found on skin that isn’t covered by a condom. HPV can be in the skin and genital organs without any symptoms.

What are the HPV vaccines?

There used to be three different vaccines that protect young people against 2, 4, or 9 different types of HPV.

Since the end of 2016, Gardasil 9® is the only available vaccine in the United States.

The vaccine works best in people who have not yet come in contact with these viruses. This is why the vaccine is recommended for all 11 and 12 year olds in the United States, however, vaccination may begin as early as age 9 years old. Adolescents and young adults 13-26 years of age who have yet to receive the vaccine or who have not completed the vaccine series should receive a catch-up vaccine(s). Adults up to 45 years old should talk to their health care provider about whether they should also be vaccinated.

Anyone receiving the HPV vaccine before their 15th birthday needs a total of 2 doses. The 2nd dose should be given 6-12 months after the first one.

Anyone starting the HPV vaccine series after they turn 15 years old needs to get 3 doses. The 2nd dose should be given 1-2 months after the first dose and the 3rd dose should be given 6 months after the first dose.

How does the HPV vaccine work?

The vaccine is a fluid that has very small particles in it that look like HPV. The body quickly starts making antibodies against the types of HPV noted above. Antibodies are necessary to fight HPV. The vaccine isn’t a live virus, which means you can’t get HPV from the vaccine.

How does a vaccine get approved?

Before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves any medicine or vaccine, scientists and doctors must study it. After researching the vaccine for a long time, the pharmaceutical company that created the vaccine must show that the vaccine will improve the health of people who receive it.

Is the HPV vaccine effective?

Gardasil 9® protects young people against nine different types of HPV including the four previously covered by Gardasil® (6, 11, 16, 18) and five additional types (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58). Overall, Gardasil 9® is expected to prevent 90% of HPV related cancers (cervical, oropharyngeal, anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile).  According to the CDC, HPV is estimated to cause approximately 36,000 cases of cancer in Americans each year. HPV vaccination can prevent over 32,000 of these HPV related cancers.The HPV is less effective in young people who have already come in contact with the HPV types in the vaccine. However, if a person has been exposed only to one of the types, the vaccines still gives protection against the remaining types. So, even people who have had sexual contact should get immunized.

It’s important to plan on returning to your health care provider for the follow-up booster shot(s) because the vaccine will not be completely effective if you don’t have all the doses.

When is the best time to get vaccinated?

The best time to get vaccinated is before you come in contact with the HPV virus. In fact, the CDC recommends that all 11 and 12 year olds get it. Health care providers can also offer the vaccine to younger children (9 and 10 year olds).

Are there any side effects with the HPV vaccine?

Side effects are rare. However, some young people who get the vaccine may complain of pain, or have swelling or redness where they got the shot (arm or thigh). These discomforts are temporary but may last a couple of days. In very few cases, people may get a fever, feel dizzy, or feel sick to their stomach. Some patients have fainted after receiving the vaccine, so you may want to sit quietly for 10-15 minutes after getting it.

It’s very uncommon to have side-effects from vaccines. If you think you might have had a side-effect (after getting a vaccine), talk to your health care provider. You can also call 1-800-822-7967 or log on to vaers.hhs.gov.

Do I have a choice about getting the HPV vaccine?

Only a few states require that kids get the HPV vaccine. Ask your primary care provider if the HPV vaccine is required in your state. Most health care providers (HCPs) would recommend you get the HPV vaccine if you’re between the ages of 9-26 to decrease your risk of HPV related cancers (i.e. cervical, oropharyngeal, anal, vaginal, vulva, and penile cancer).

How do I know if I should get the HPV vaccine?

Talk it over with your health care provider. Now that the vaccine is available, it is a good idea to take advantage of it. Most people will become sexually active at some point in their lives and the vaccine is very effective in preventing the spread of HPV. Using condoms lowers your risk of HPV, but condoms are not perfect. Getting HPV is far worse than getting the shot.

Is there any reason why I shouldn’t get the HPV vaccine?

The vaccine is not recommended if you are pregnant, have certain blood conditions, an immune disorder, or certain other medical problems. You should not receive the HPV vaccine if you are allergic to any part of the vaccine or if you had a severe reaction to the first dose.

If you find out you’re pregnant after you get the first shot, tell your health care provider. You will be advised to wait to get the second (or third) shot until after your pregnancy is over.

Should I get the vaccine even if I’ve already had sex and don’t know if I was exposed to HPV?

Yes. All people ages 9-26 should receive the vaccine even if they’ve already had sex. It’s not necessary to have an HPV test before getting the vaccine.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

The vaccine is considered safe by FDA standards. It’s not made with a live virus; that means the vaccine won’t give you an HPV infection. It does not contain mercury or thimerosal.

If I’ve already tested positive for HPV, will the vaccine help?

It depends on what type of HPV you have been exposed to. The vaccine won’t cure an HPV infection that you already have, such as genital warts, pre-cancers (changes that usually happen before a cancer starts to grow), or cancer. It could, however, protect you from the types of HPV that you have not come in contact with. Many people who have HPV are not infected with all the types of HPV that the vaccine targets. Since there is no test available to tell for sure if a person has had just one or multiple types of the HPV virus, it’s recommended to get the vaccine.

Talk to your health care provider to find out if you should have the vaccine. It’s ALWAYS important to use condoms every time you have sex and to see your health care provider for regular check-ups and Pap tests.

If I get the HPV vaccine will I be protected for the rest of my life?

The vaccine is effective for at least 8 years, but is likely effective even longer. It’s unknown, but at some point in the future a booster may be recommended.

Will my insurance cover the HPV vaccine?

Most health insurance plans cover the HPV vaccine. If you do not have insurance, there are programs available to help you get the vaccine for little to no cost.  If you must pay for the vaccine on your own, it typically costs about $250.

Will there be a vaccine someday that prevents other types of HPV?

It’s very possible that someday there will be a vaccine that works to prevent more types of HPV.

Having a vaccine that protects against types of HPV that cause serious problems including warts (6 and 11) and cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, vulva, vaginal, as well as penile cancers (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58) is a huge deal and very exciting. Remember, the HPV vaccine protects you against a few kinds of the virus, but it doesn’t protect you from all 150+ of them. It’s still very important to go for regular check-ups and Pap tests (if you have a cervix). Be sure that you always use condoms if you’re sexually active. Talk to your health care provider about whether the vaccine is right for you.