Facts About Human Papillomavirus (HPV) for Adults

What is human papillomavirus?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 viruses that are usually spread through sexual contact. HPV infection is extremely common; there are more than six million new infections in the US each year and more than 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get it in their lifetime. Most new infections are in people in their teens and early twenties. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer and can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. The virus also causes genital warts. People can pass the virus on even if they have no symptoms and even if years have passed since they were first infected.

Most people infected with HPV have no symptoms and will clear the virus within a few years. However, some people will get visible genital warts that are usually soft, moist, pink or fleshy colored swellings. The warts can be removed by medications or other treatments. They may also resolve without treatment. In either case, disappearance of the warts does not mean the virus has left the body. 

Certain types of HPV are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. Often, the first indication a woman gets that she is carrying HPV may be when she receives abnormal Pap test results.

There are two safe and effective vaccines (Cervarix® and Gardasil®) available to prevent HPV infection. Both vaccines protect against the two strains of HPV (16 and 18) that cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Gardasil® also protects against strains 6 and 11 that are associated with 90 percent of genital warts. Both vaccines are approved for use in females. Gardasil® is approved for use in males. HPV infection can also be prevented by abstaining from sexual contact.

Who should get HPV vaccine?
All adolescents should receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 to 12 years. The following are recommended for vaccination if they have not been vaccinated previously or have not completed the full series:

  • Females through age 26
  • Males through age 21.
  • Men who have sex with men and men with compromised immune systems through age 26.
Additionally, vaccination may occur in the following:
  • Males through age 26
  • Adults with diabetes age 19 through 59 years. Vaccination can be considered in those with diabetes who are age 60 and older.

Vaccine safety
HPV vaccines are safe and effective. The vaccines have been tested in thousands of people around the world. The studies have shown no serious side effects. The most common side effects are usually mild and include soreness at the injection site, fever, headache, and nausea. 

Disease and vaccine facts
  • FACT:  Two vaccines are available to prevent HPV infection. Both protect against two HPV strains (16 and 18) that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers. One vaccine also protects against an additional two strains (6 and 11) that cause 90 percent of genital warts.
  • FACT:   HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26 for men who have sex with men and men who with compromised immune systems if they have not been vaccinated or did not complete the entire three-dose series as adolescents.
  • FACT:  In addition to cervical cancer, HPV causes penile, anal, mouth and throat cancers.
  • FACT: HPV infection is very common. There are about six million new cases in the US annually. 
  • FACT:  At least half of all sexually active adults will be infected in their lifetime. 
  • FACT: Most women find out they have HPV because of abnormal Pap test results. A Pap test is the primary tool used to detect cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. 
  • FACT: Most HPV infections occur without symptoms and resolve on their own. 
  • FACT:  HPV is spread through genital or skin-to-skin contact. The virus can be spread even when no symptoms (i.e., genital warts) are evident.
  • FACT: The CDC recommends vaccination for females and males at age 11-12 years. Vaccination can occur through age 26 for women and age 21 for men if they have not been vaccinated previously or did not complete the entire three-dose series. 
  • FACT:  HPV vaccination is recommended through age 26 for men who have sex with men and men with compromised immune systems if they have not been vaccinated previously or did not complete the entire three-dose series as adolescents.
  • FACT:  Women already infected with HPV should still get vaccinated because the vaccine may protect against additional HPV strains. However, for maximum benefit, vaccination should occur before a woman becomes sexually active. 
  • FACT: The HPV vaccine does not treat HPV infection. There is no cure for HPV infection.
  • FACT:  Vaccinated women should continue to get regularly scheduled Pap screenings because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types.

January 2012

For more information, speak with your healthcare professional or visit www.Adultvaccination.org.