HPV vaccine

All girls can get the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine free from the NHS from the age of 12 up to their 18th birthday.

It helps protect them against cervical cancer, which is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK. 

In England, girls aged 12 to 13 years are routinely offered the first HPV vaccination when they're in school year 8.

The second dose is normally offered 6 to 12 months after the first (in school year 8 or year 9).

The HPV vaccine is effective at stopping girls getting the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. It's important to have both doses to be protected.

What is HPV?

The human papilloma virus (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. Other types can cause conditions like warts or verrucas.

Nearly all cervical cancers (99.7%) are caused by infection with a high-risk type of HPV. HPV infections don't usually cause any symptoms, and most people won't know they're infected.

Read 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 types 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 women infected with a high-risk type of HPV won't be able to clear it.

Over time, this can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other changes in the cells of their cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer if not treated.

High-risk types of HPV are also linked to other 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?

Currently, the national NHS HPV vaccination programme uses a vaccine called Gardasil.

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

HPV types 6 and 11 cause nearly all cases of genital warts (90%), so using Gardasil helps protect girls against both cervical cancer and genital warts.

HPV vaccination doesn't protect against other infections spread during sex, such as chlamydia, and it won't stop girls getting pregnant, so it's still very important to practice safe sex.

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

The first dose of the HPV vaccine is routinely offered to girls aged 12 and 13 in school year 8.

The second dose is normally offered 6 to 12 months after the first (in school year 8 or year 9). The HPV vaccine helps protect them against cervical cancer.

Girls who miss either of their HPV vaccine doses should speak to their school immunisation team or their GP surgery and make an appointment to get up-to-date as soon as possible.

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

Girls can have the HPV vaccination on the NHS up to their 18th birthday.

Girls who start the HPV vaccination after the age of 15 will need 3 doses as they don't respond as well to 2 doses as younger girls do.

Read more about who can have the HPV vaccine.

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

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 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. In most cases, the virus doesn't do any harm because their immune system clears the infection.

But in some cases, the infection stays in the body for many years and then for no apparent reason it may start to cause damage.

Cervical screening (sometimes called a smear test) can detect these changes. They can then be treated to stop cancer developing.

Read more about how to prevent HPV infection.

HPV vaccination for men and boys

Cervical cancer doesn't affect boys and men because they don't have a cervix, so they don't receive the HPV vaccine as part of the routine national programme.

But other cancers, such as cancer of the anus, penis, mouth and throat, are also linked to infection with HPV 16 and 18.

Vaccinating girls helps to indirectly protect boys from these types of HPV through what's known as herd immunity because vaccinated girls won't pass HPV on to them.

The number of genital wart infections in the UK has already fallen in both girls and boys because of the vaccination programme.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) don't benefit in the same way from the girls' programme, so may be left unprotected from HPV.

Public Health England is currently running a trial programme in a number of areas across England where MSM up to the age of 45 can get the HPV vaccination for free from certain sexual health clinics.

The results of this trial will help us decide if it would be effective to roll out a HPV vaccination programme for MSM across the country.

How is the HPV vaccine given?

The HPV vaccine is currently given as a series of 2 injections into the upper arm.

They're spaced at least 6 months apart, and girls can get the vaccine for free up to their 18th birthday. It's important to have both vaccine doses to be protected.

Girls who get their first vaccination dose over the age of 15 will need to have 3 injections.

Learn more about how the HPV vaccine is given.

How long does the HPV vaccine protect for?

Studies have already 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 doesn't protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it's important that all girls who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.

Read more on the safety of the HPV vaccine.

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

You can also read more about how to prevent HPV infections, how to test for HPV infections, and how HPV infections are treated.

Page last reviewed: 31/10/2017
Next review due: 31/10/2020