What is HPV?
HPV is the common name for human papillomavirus (say “pap-uh-LOW-muh-VYE-russ). There are many different types of this virus. About 40 types can cause infections in the mouth and genitals, or private parts. These areas include the penis, vagina, cervix, vulva and anus. Some types are “high-risk” and raise the risk of certain cancers, such as cervical cancer. Other types are “low-risk,” causing warts on the genitals or no symptoms at all.
HPV is very common. Most people get a type of this virus in their lifetimes. Your body will probably get rid of the virus on its own. But in some people, HPV does not go away. This can happen because the immune system is weak.
HPV can cause a condition called “pre-cancer.” This means you have abnormal cells that can become cancer if they are not treated.
Types of cancer caused by HPV
HPV can cause several types of cancer. These include:
- Cervical cancer
- Cancer of the vagina and vulva
- Cancer of the penis
- Anal cancer
- Mouth and throat cancer
Doctors only screen for one (1) of these types, cervical cancer. Women get this screening through a Pap test. Your doctor might not find other cancers until they cause symptoms.
About genital warts
Some types of HPV cause warts on the genitals, anus, mouth, throat, and nearby areas. The warts are small bumps that can be itchy and painful. Doctors can treat them, but cannot cure the HPV that causes them. The virus stays in the body and the warts might come back later.
How does HPV spread?
HPV spreads through contact with an infected person’s mouth or genitals. This includes oral sex, penis and vagina sex, anal sex, and more. Most people with HPV are healthy and do not have any symptoms. The infected person might not even know that they have the virus, or that they can spread it to other people. Also, the virus can live in the body for many years, and you can have more than one (1) type at a time.
Can HPV be prevented?
Yes. There is a vaccine (shot) to prevent infection with the types of HPV that cause cancer and genital warts. It works well if your child gets the shot before they might be exposed to HPV.
Who can get the HPV vaccine?
Your child can get the HPV vaccine at age 9 or older. Doctors recommend it at age 11 or 12. This way, your child is protected long before they have sexual contact that could spread HPV.
Children age 9 to 14 need 2 doses (shots) of the vaccine. Your child needs 3 doses if they are 15 or older.
Why does my child need the vaccine if HPV spreads through sex?
Your child might never be exposed to HPV. But HPV is a common virus. About 14 million Americans are infected each year, including teens. HPV causes more than 30,000 cancers in the U.S. each year. Many St. Jude patients are at increased risk of infections.
At St. Jude, we recommend doing everything possible to protect your child’s health, now and in the future. This includes lowering the risk of future cancers.
Is the vaccine safe?
Yes. So far, doctors have given more than 100 million doses of the HPV vaccine. Research shows it is safe and effective against the virus.
If you have questions about the HPV vaccine, please ask your child’s doctor or nurse.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
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