The HPV Vaccine: Why All Adolescents Need to Get It

From the dosage schedule to potential side effects, here's everything parents need to know about protecting kids from human papillomavirus with the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine protects against HPV (human papillomavirus), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some point, with more than 13 million new cases in America each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's easily passed from person to person through genital contact, and it's most commonly acquired during the late teens and early 20s.

An image of a teenage boy getting a shot.
Getty Images.

There are many different strains of HPV, though most cause no symptoms and go away as the immune system fights them off. But some HPV strains may linger, leading to genital warts or changes to cells that cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, vulva, or oropharynx. Indeed, 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in America—and according to the CDC, more than 9 out of 10 cases are caused by HPV infection. For men, 11,800 cases of cancer in the back of the throat are attributed to HPV.

The HPV vaccine (Gardasil) is recommended for all adolescents, and it protects against some strains of HPV that cause cancer and genital warts. In a study published in November 2021 in The Lancet, researchers from the United Kingdom found an 87% reduced risk of cervical cancer in the first generation of women to receive the HPV vaccine. Those who received the vaccine at younger ages saw better protection. It's important to note that the study focused on Cervarix, an early vaccine that protects against two strains of HPV. Gardasil, which is widely used today, protects against more strains.

Here's what parents need to know about HPV vaccine age, side effects, dosage, and more.

What's the Recommended HPV Vaccine Age?

No matter what sex a child is assigned at birth, the HPV vaccine is recommended for all adolescents aged 11-12, but it can be given as young as 9. In fact, a study published in Pediatrics showed moving routine vaccination to ages 9 to 10 could improve vaccination rates. Currently, about 40% of teenagers haven't completed the HPV vaccination series. Researchers believe officially making the recommended age earlier would help improve that percentage.

Some doctors may also recommend the vaccine for those aged 13-26 who didn't already receive it. The HPV vaccine age limit is usually 26 years old because people this age have likely been exposed to HPV already. "However, some adults aged 27 through 45 years who were not already vaccinated may decide to get HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination," says the CDC.

What's the HPV Vaccine Schedule?

Children aged 9-15 should receive two doses of the HPV vaccine; the second dose is given six to 12 months after the first. Once your child turns 15 years old, they need three shots over a six-month period.

For maximum effectiveness, it's important to get vaccinated against HPV before having sexual contact. "The recommended HPV vaccine schedule was purposefully designed to vaccinate young people before they start having sex," says Neal Halsey, M.D., director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. That's because the vaccine is most effective in those who have not yet acquired HPV. Once your child becomes sexually active, their risk of contracting HPV increases immediately.

Is the HPV Vaccine Effective?

Because HPV is so common and can lead to cancer, most doctors think getting this vaccine is very important. "HPV causes thousands of women to suffer and die from cervical cancer each year," says Paul Offit, M.D., Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of American Baby magazine's advisory board. The vaccine can prevent many deaths from cervical cancer—and also from cancers of the penis, anus, vagina, vulva, and throat.

When given to kids between 9 and 12 years old, the vaccine can prevent more than 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV, according to the American Cancer Society.

There's no evidence that the vaccine fights off HPV strains your child may have been exposed to already, but it will protect them against the strains they haven't. Based on research and studies, HPV vaccine effectiveness doesn't seem to decrease over time.

Who Shouldn't Get the HPV Vaccine?

According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine isn't currently recommended for pregnant people. Although it appears safe for unborn babies, more information must be conducted before making a conclusion about HPV vaccine risks. Other people who shouldn't receive the vaccine include:

  • Anyone who's had a serious allergic reaction to latex or yeast (there's a small amount in this vaccine) or a previous dose of the HPV vaccine
  • Anyone who is moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated

Are you still wondering, "Is the HPV vaccine safe for my kid?" Talk to your child's doctor if you're concerned; they can give recommendations based on their health.

Are There Any HPV Vaccine Side Effects?

With licensing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and studies on thousands of people worldwide, the HPV vaccine is concerned safe. More than 270 million doses have been distributed worldwide, according to the American Cancer Society, and HPV vaccine side effects usually aren't serious. The most common include pain at the injection site, dizziness, nausea, headache, fever, and (rarely) fainting. Sitting or lying for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine can reduce the risk of fainting.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are very rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after receiving a shot, call your doctor right away.

It's important to note that HPV vaccine long-term side effects haven't been reported.

What Should I Tell My Kids About the HPV Vaccine?

Some parents may feel uncomfortable having their kids vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease—especially at such a young age—because it may spark a discussion about sex that they're just not quite prepared to have. Others may worry that being vaccinated will cause a tween or teen to become sexually active earlier or to engage in riskier behavior once they are having sex.

"But research shows that girls decide whether or not to start having sex based on things like personal or family values—not whether or not they've had a vaccine," says Dr. Halsey. "There's no evidence that getting the HPV vaccine will change your child's behavior." If you and your child aren't ready for a formal safe-sex chat yet, you can just tell them that the vaccine helps prevent cancer, and leave it at that, says Dr. Halsey.

It's important to remember that the HPV vaccine only protects against certain strains of the virus, so vaccinated kids can still get other types, including those that cause cancer. So when the time comes, it's important to talk to your children about safe sex. All sexually active girls and women, vaccinated or not, should receive regular Pap smears (a screening test that can detect irregular cells before they become precancerous or cancerous).

How Much Does the HPV Vaccine Cost?

Most health insurance plans will cover the cost of the HPV vaccine. If not, families can check out the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which helps families vaccinate children through 18 years of age. They must meet one of the following criteria: uninsured, eligible for Medicaid program, or American Indian or Alaska Native. Find out more on the CDC website.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cancers Caused by HPV.

  3. Goodman E, Felsher M, Wang D, Yao L, Chen YT. Early initiation of HPV vaccination and series completion in early and mid-adolescencePediatrics. 2023

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescents (Ages 13-17)

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