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Q: Should adults get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine helps protect against nine strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted infection that causes several cancers. Most people know that it can cause cervical cancer in women, but other common cancers include head and neck cancers, rectal cancers, and other cancers of the genitals. HPV is also the cause of genital warts. The vaccine is most effective when given to people in early adolescence, before they have their first sexual experience. But since it’s only been available for about 10 years, many adults never had the opportunity to be vaccinated when they were younger.

The FDA expanded the use of the HPV shot to include adults up to age 45 in 2019, although insurance may not pay for it in older adults. While there have not been many studies of the vaccine in this age group, other studies have found that the vaccine seems to be very safe. And some studies have found it is effective in preventing infection from strains of HPV in older women who had previously tested negative for those strains. However, there have been no studies showing that getting the HPV vaccine reduces the risk of cancer in older women.

That might be because screening is so effective at catching abnormalities early, before they become cancer. In fact, rates of cervical cancer are very low in older women who get regular screening. The current recommendation for screening is to get a PAP smear plus HPV test every five years, or a PAP smear every three years.

Long story short, talk to your doctor about your sexual health. Individualized advice will change based on your practices. Regardless of vaccination status, getting regular screenings is still the best protection for women from cervical cancer.

Travis W. Glenn, MD

Family Medicine

Glenn Family Medicine, LLC
85 Maui Lani Parkway
Wailuku, , HI 96793