- HPV vaccines are safe and protect against many types of cancer including cervical, throat, and anal.
- Common HPV vaccine side effects should subside in 2 days and include dizziness, nausea, and fainting.
- HPV vaccines don't cause infertility, GBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, or postural tachycardia syndrome.
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HPV (human papillomavirus) infects the majority of sexually active individuals at some point. Your immune system typically does a great job of recovering from the virus and eliminating it from your body. However, if the virus persists, it can result in genital warts, or worse, cervical, throat, or anal cancer.
This is where vaccinations come in. The HPV vaccine lowers your risk of contracting any of the over 200 strains of HPV, subsequently better protecting against HPV-related cancer.
However, as with any medication, you may experience side effects from the HPV vaccinations, including soreness, nausea, or headaches. Thankfully, these are usually mild and typically go away within 48 hours of getting the shot.
Here's what you should know before deciding whether or not the HPV vaccinations are right for you.
Are HPV vaccines safe?
The HPV vaccines can reduce the risk of developing genital warts and, more importantly, can prevent over 90% of cancers caused by HPV including cervical, throat, and anal cancer.
Case in point, a 2020 study of nearly 1.7 million women found that girls vaccinated before age 17 had a nearly 90% reduction in cervical cancer incidence across the 11-year study period (2006 through 2017) compared to the incidence in women who had not been vaccinated.
Similar studies have been done in other nations. One Scottish study of 138,692 women found that vaccination of girls aged 12–13 years with the HPV vaccine resulted in an 89% reduction in cervical abnormalities.
So, yes, the HPV vaccines are not only safe but also effective, and they have been monitored and used worldwide for several years in a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, and most of western Europe.
However, there's a lot of misinformation around the HPV vaccines, which may help explain why fewer than 60% of 13- to 17-year-olds in the US were fully vaccinated in 2020. That's despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation for routine HPV vaccination for people between ages 9 and 12 years.
Safety concerns for the HPV vaccine
An investigative report found that from 2015 to 2018, the number of US parents who declined the HPV vaccine for their children due to safety concerns nearly doubled.
According to the report, the three most common reasons for caregivers declining vaccinations for their children were:
- "Safety concerns"
- "Not recommended"
- "Lack of knowledge"
So, to help address some of these concerns, here's a roundup of key facts you should know:
- Few health issues: The National Cancer Institute notes that reports of serious health issues after HPV vaccination are consistently rare (0.0018%, or 1.8 out of 100,000 doses) and have actually decreased between 2015-2018.
- Long-lasting protection: The protection provided by HPV vaccines is long-lasting. These vaccines protect against HPV infections for at least 10 years, and experts expect protection to last for much longer.
- Extensive research: In the 15+ years of researching the three types of HPV vaccines, studies and clinical trials have collectively examined more than 74,000 people. Broken down by vaccine type, that looks like:
- Gardasil® 9 has been studied in clinical trials with 15,000+ people
- Gardasil® has been studied in clinical trials with 29,000+ people
- Cervarix® has been studied in clinical trials with 30,000+ women
- Wide support: Major supporters of HPV vaccinations include:
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- Academic Pediatric Association (APA)
- National Cancer Institute (NCI)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- American College of Physicians
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the CDC
Common and rare HPV vaccine side effects
"It's very common for people to experience some mild side effects shortly after getting the HPV vaccine. More than one out of every ten people experience some side effects," says Chaye McIntosh, MS and Clinical Director of ChoicePoint Health.
For example, because the HPV vaccine is administered through injection, you may "feel pain and develop redness, itchiness, and soreness near the injection site," says Kire Stojkovski, MD at the Farr Institute.
Common side effects
The most common side effects of HPV vaccines for both sexes are typically mild and go away on their own. These include:
- Swelling or redness at the injection site
- Muscle or joint pain
To prevent fainting, you should be seated or lying down during your vaccination and for 15 minutes after getting your shot.
These side effects aren't unique to the HPV vaccine and are common for most vaccines. Moreover, "these side effects generally subside within two days," says McIntosh.
Rare side effects
The Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) monitored for a rare condition called GBS (Guillain-Barre syndrome) following Gardasil® 9 vaccination between 2006-2015.
Out of 2,773,185 doses there was only one case of GBS, suggesting that the risk of getting GBS following HPV vaccination is extremely rare.
Another rare side effect is severe (anaphylactic) allergic reactions. There are only three cases of anaphylaxis for every million doses given of the HPV vaccine. This is similar to rates for other vaccines given to children and teens.
People with severe allergies to any HPV vaccine component should not receive this vaccine. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction might include hives, swelling of the face and throat, trouble breathing, an increased heartbeat, dizziness, and weakness.
Call 911 and get the person to the nearest hospital if this happens.
HPV vaccine side effect misconceptions
"The most common misconception about the HPV vaccine is that it leads to infertility in women by causing premature ovarian failure," says McIntosh. However, the research has definitively found no link.
A systematic review of studies on HPV vaccines and infertility was conducted, in which 608 articles were considered. The reviewers concluded that all of the available data does not support any association between HPV vaccination and infertility or primary ovarian insufficiency, a condition that can hinder fertility.
Misinformation about HPV vaccines has also raised concerns that it may lead to the following:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Complex regional pain syndrome
- Postural tachycardia syndrome
Studies have found no increase in cases of these conditions among people who have been vaccinated against HPV compared with people who have not.
Who should not get vaccinated
You or your child should not get an HPV vaccination if:
- You have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to any ingredient of the vaccine or to a past dose of the HPV vaccine.
- You are allergic to yeast, as yeast is present in Gardasil® and Gardasil 9®.
- You are or might currently be pregnant.
HPV vaccines are safe for people with low-grade fevers below 101 degrees Fahrenheit, a runny nose, or a cough. People with moderate or severe illnesses should wait to get vaccinated until they are feeling better.
The HPV vaccines don't protect against all types of HPV that may cause cervical cancer. To improve your long-term protection against HPV, it's important that women also have regular cervical screenings, regardless of whether or not they've had HPV vaccinations.
"It's common for someone to have side effects after a vaccine because it introduces a foreign substance to the body. The body's immune system will naturally react to the foreign substance to protect you in the future," says Stojkovski.
While you may experience mild side effects, the HPV vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in most people. Given that the HPV vaccine can prevent over 90% of cancers caused by HPV, the benefit outweighs the side effect risk.