HPV vaccine for genital warts and cervical cancer

Dear Alice,

I recently began hearing rumors about an HPV vaccine in the works. Do you know anything about the HPV vaccines being tested and when they might be available? Also, will the vaccines cure HPV or just prevent it? Thanks in advance.


Dear J, 

Those rumors are true! In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine (of three) that protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV) strains that are most associated with cervical cancer and genital warts. HPV is a virus that can spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person and is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In most cases, HPV may resolve itself within two years without further complications. However, for some, certain strains of HPV will remain in the body forever, requiring treatment to manage the symptoms. More severe health conditions, like cervical, penile, mouth, throat, vulvar, and anal cancer, may also arise, as a result of contracting HPV and depending on the strain. 

The three FDA-approved HPV vaccines—Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix—work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies. These antibodies then bind to the virus if contracted in the future and prevent it from infecting cells in the body. These vaccines protect against infection from HPV itself as well as prevent most cases of cancer caused by HPV. However, the HPV vaccine doesn’t prevent other STIs or cure existing HPV infections. 

It’s recommended that children ages 11 to 12 years of age receive the HPV vaccination; however, the vaccine can be given as early as nine years old. The recommended course for the vaccine is two doses at least six months apart, with an additional third dose if the individual is older than 15 or immunocompromised. It’s ideal for the vaccine to be administered before becoming sexually active so that there’s less chance the person has already been exposed to the virus. That said, people may still receive the vaccine up to the age of 45 and regardless of sexual activity; history of genital warts, an abnormal pap smear, or HPV test; or precancerous cells within the genital area. Although the vaccine is approved for adults ages 27 through 45 years, for those who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant, it’s recommended to delay HPV vaccination until after pregnancy. As with many vaccines, you may expect to experience side effects and it’s beneficial to speak with a health care provider to discuss any risk factors you may have. 

If you decide to get vaccinated, you may have options for where you can receive the vaccination, depending on your insurance coverage. 

  • Local health care provider. Private insurance plans and Medicaid will cover HPV vaccination under preventive services with no copayment. 
  • Pharmacies and drugstores. Depending on your insurance coverage, you may be eligible to receive vaccination at a local pharmacy or drugstore for no- or low-cost. 
  • Donation-based organizations. The manufacturer of Gardasil 9—Merck—provides their vaccine for free to people aged 19 to 45 years in the United States who qualify based on annual household income. 

Current studies show that the HPV vaccine protects for at least ten years and there hasn't been official guidance to suggest revaccination after this period. Researchers plan to follow up with those who’ve been vaccinated up to ten years after completing the immunization series to determine their HPV status at that time. 

Although getting the HPV vaccine offers some protection against the virus, it doesn’t protect against other types of STIs. When having sex, consider using condoms or other barrier methods, like dental dams to reduce the risk of STI transmission and prevent pregnancy. Additionally, continuing (or starting) to get routine pap smears are also recommended since they’re a great tool for detecting pre-cancerous or cancerous changes in the cervix, and a way to provide early treatment for cervical cancer or pre-cancer should it be detected. 

If you’re interested in getting vaccinated, consider speaking with a health care provider to learn more about your options. For more information about HPV and other STIs, check out the Go Ask Alice! Sexually Transmitted Infections category in the Sexual & Reproductive Health archives. 

Last updated Aug 18, 2023
Originally published May 12, 2005

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