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HPV vaccine overview

Girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years are offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme.

The HPV vaccine helps protect against cancers caused by HPV, including:

It also helps protect against genital warts.

In England, girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years are routinely offered the 1st HPV vaccination when they're in school Year 8. The 2nd dose is offered 6 to 24 months after the 1st dose.

It's important to have both doses of the vaccine to be properly protected.

If you're eligible and missed the HPV vaccine in school Year 8, you can have it free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday.

What is HPV?

HPV is the name given to a very common group of viruses.

There are many types of HPV, some of which are called "high risk" because they're linked to the development of cancers, such as cervical cancer, anal cancer, genital cancers, and cancers of the head and neck.

Other types can cause conditions like warts or verrucas.

High risk types of HPV can be found in more than 99% of cervical cancers.

There's a lesser association between HPV and some of the anal and genital cancers, and cancers of the head and neck.

HPV infections do not usually cause any symptoms, and most people will not know they're infected.

Find out more about HPV

What are the different types of HPV and what do they do?

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and around 40 that affect the genital area.

HPV is very common and can be caught through any kind of sexual contact with another person who already has it.

Most people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives and their bodies will get rid of it naturally without treatment.

But some people infected with a high-risk type of HPV will not be able to clear it.

Over time, this can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other changes, which can lead to cancer if not treated.

High-risk types of HPV are linked to different types of cancer, including:

Infection with other types of HPV may cause:

  • genital warts – small growths or skin changes on or around the genital or anal area; they're the most common viral sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
  • skin warts and verrucas – not on the genital area
  • warts on the voice box or vocal cords (laryngeal papillomas)

How does the HPV vaccine work?

The national NHS HPV vaccination programme uses a vaccine called Gardasil.

Gardasil protects against 4 types of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. Between them, types 16 and 18 are the cause of most cervical cancers in the UK (more than 70%).

These types of HPV also cause some anal and genital cancers, and some cancers of the head and neck.

HPV types 6 and 11 cause around 90% of genital warts, so using Gardasil helps protect girls against both cervical cancer and genital warts.

HPV vaccination does not protect against other infections spread during sex, such as chlamydia, and it will not stop girls getting pregnant, so it's still very important to practise safe sex.

Who can have the HPV vaccine through the NHS vaccination programme?

The 1st dose of the HPV vaccine is routinely offered to girls and boys aged 12 and 13 in school Year 8. The 2nd dose is offered 6 to 24 months after the 1st dose.

If you miss either of your HPV vaccine doses, speak to your school immunisation team or GP surgery and make an appointment to have the missed dose as soon as possible.

It's important to have both doses of the vaccine to be fully protected.

People who were eligible for HPV vaccination in school Year 8 but who missed it can still be vaccinated on the NHS up to their 25th birthday.

People who have the 1st dose of the HPV vaccine at 15 years of age or above will need to have 3 doses of the vaccine. This is because they do not respond as well to 2 doses as younger people do.

Find out more about who can have the HPV vaccine

Read more about HPV vaccination safety and the possible side effects.

How has the HPV vaccination programme changed?

In July 2018, it was announced that the HPV vaccine would be extended to boys aged 12 to 13 years in England.

This decision was based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the independent body that advises UK health departments on immunisation.

From the 2019 to 2020 school year, 12- to 13-year-old boys and girls in school Year 8 will both be eligible for the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccination programme has been extended to prevent more boys and girls getting HPV-related cancers, such as head and neck cancers and anal and genital cancers.

A catch-up programme for older boys is not necessary as evidence suggests they're already benefiting greatly from the indirect protection (known as herd protection) that's built up from 10 years of the girls' HPV vaccination programme.

Why is the HPV vaccine given at such a young age?

HPV infections can be spread by any skin-to-skin contact and are usually found on the fingers, hands, mouth and genitals.

This means the virus can be spread during any kind of sexual activity, including touching.

The HPV vaccine works best if girls and boys get it before they come into contact with HPV (in other words, before they become sexually active).

So getting the vaccine when recommended will help protect them during their teenage years and beyond.

Most unvaccinated people will be infected with some type of HPV at some time in their life.

The virus does not usually do any harm because the person's immune system clears the infection.

But sometimes the infection stays in the body for many years, and then it may start to cause damage.

HPV vaccination for men who have sex with men (MSM)

Men who have sex with men (MSM) have not benefited in the same way from the longstanding girls' programme, so may be left unprotected against HPV.

Since April 2018, MSM up to and including 45 years of age have been eligible for free HPV vaccination on the NHS when they visit sexual health clinics and HIV clinics in England.

Ask the doctor or nurse at the clinic for more details.

Find out more about HPV vaccination for MSM in this NHS leaflet (PDF, 93kb)

HPV vaccination for transgender people

Trans women (people who were assigned male at birth) are eligible in the same way as MSM if their risk of getting HPV is similar to the risk of MSM who are eligible for the HPV vaccine.

Trans men (people who were assigned female at birth) are eligible if they have sex with other men and are aged 45 or under.

If trans men have previously completed a course of HPV vaccination as part of the girls' HPV vaccine programme, no further doses are needed.

How is the HPV vaccine given?

The HPV vaccine is given as 2 injections into the upper arm spaced at least 6 months apart.

It's important to have both doses of the vaccine to be properly protected.

If you missed the HPV vaccine offered in school Year 8, you can get it for free up until your 25th birthday.

But if you get your 1st vaccine dose at the age of 15 or over, you'll need to have 3 injections.

Men who have sex with men (MSM), and trans men and trans women who are eligible for the vaccine, will need 3 doses of the vaccine (2 if they're under 15).

If you need 3 doses of the vaccine:

  • the 2nd dose should be given at least 1 month after the 1st dose
  • the 3rd dose should be given at least 3 months after the 2nd dose

It's important to have all 3 vaccine doses to be properly protected.

Find out more about how the HPV vaccine is given

How long does the HPV vaccine protect for?

Studies have shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for at least 10 years, although experts expect protection to last for much longer.

But because the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it's important that all women who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.

Read more about cervical screening

Further information

Find out more about the safety of the HPV vaccine

Find out more about HPV vaccination in this NHS leaflet (PDF, 157kb)

You can also read more about the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Page last reviewed: 10 May 2019
Next review due: 10 May 2022