What women need to know about HPV

In addition to getting regular Pap tests and checkups, there are other ways to protect yourself from HPV.

Safer sex

Practicing safer sex can help protect you from HPV, which can cause genital warts, cervical cancer, and other health problems.

How can I catch HPV?
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin genital contact during sexual activity, even if you don't actually have sex. It's not spread through the blood like some other viruses, such as HIV.

How do I practice "safer sex"?

  • Don't panic! Safer sex doesn't mean locking yourself in a closet for the next 20 years or staying away from sex altogether.
  • Although you've probably heard it all before, make sure you use a condom each and every time you have any sexual contact with your partner. Remember that condoms don't provide complete protection because they don't cover all exposed skin that could transmit HPV. But don't stop using condoms because of this - they still help protect against other infections like HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Condoms also reduce your chances of getting pregnant.
  • This may seem like common sense, but must be stated anyway: If you see signs of genital warts, including blisters, sores, or itching, avoid sexual activity. Some experts believe that when visible warts are present, the HPV is more likely to spread. See what genital warts look like.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners that you have. See how HPV can spread through your network of sexual partners.
  • Remember that abstinence (not having sex) is a valid choice - don't feel pressured into having sex if you're not comfortable with it. But if you do decide to have sex, use condoms and limit the number of sexual partners you have to help reduce your risk of getting infections such as HPV.

What else do I need to know about safer sex and HPV?

  • You can't tell if someone has HPV just by looking at them. Often, people have no visible symptoms at all, but can still pass on the virus. They may not even know they have it.
  • Having sex with only one person won't necessarily protect you from getting HPV either. You or your partner may already have caught HPV from a previous relationship, even if he didn't have sex. Remember, any sexual activity involving skin-to-skin contact in the genital area can spread the virus.

It's up to you to practice safer sex! This will help protect you from HPV and other STIs. Remember, it's important to learn all of the ways to protect yourself.

Vaccination: Q&A

I've been hearing on the news about vaccines for certain types of HPV. What's all the noise about?
There are 2 vaccines available that can help to protect against certain types of HPV. The HPV vaccines provide protection against 2 types of HPV that cause 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. One HPV vaccine also provides protection against the 2 types of HPV that cause 90% of all genital warts.

Can I get the vaccine?
The vaccines are available for girls and young women aged at least 9 years of age. One vaccine is for girls and young women aged 10 to 25 years. Another vaccine is available for girls and women aged 9 to 45 years. Boys and young men aged 9 to 26 can also receive one of the HPV vaccines; see "Can males also get the vaccine?" to learn more.

The best time to be vaccinated is before you become sexually active, because you haven't been infected with certain types of HPV. HPV vaccination can still be useful if you're already sexually active, since you're unlikely to have been infected with all the types of HPV that the vaccine protects against. You can also receive the vaccine even if you've already had genital warts, cervical cancer, or abnormal cervical cells, since it may still protect you from becoming infected with types of HPV that you haven't been infected with. But, while the vaccine may prevent these problems, it can't treat HPV if you already have it.

How is the vaccine given?
It's given in a series of 3 separate injections (shots) over a period of 6 months. After you first receive the shot, the second shot is given either one month or two months after the first shot (depending on which vaccine you are receiving). Then, the third shot is given 6 months after the first one. To make sure the vaccine works properly, it's really important that you have all 3 shots at exactly the right times. It is best that you follow the schedule above, however, if you should miss a dose, your doctor will decide the best time to give you the missed dose.

To help you remember, try setting up your next 2 appointments at the first doctor's visit, and mark them in your calendar at home, or set a reminder on your cell phone. Whether it's a cell phone, wall calendar, or friend or family member, there are many ways to remind you of when your next vaccine injection is due - just use the one that works best for you.

What won't the vaccine do?
The vaccines are well-tolerated, meaning that there are few, if any, side effects for most women. The vaccines are not a treatment for cervical cancer, genital warts, or abnormal cervical cells. Nor are they a substitute for regular checkups, which include your routine Pap tests. Remember, a Pap test is one of the best ways to screen for abnormal cells and cervical cancer. Unfortunately, HPV vaccination is not for everyone, so check with your doctor to see if it's right for you.

What are the side effects of the vaccine?
The vaccines are generally well-tolerated. Side effects from HPV vaccination may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • headache
  • joint pain
  • muscle ache or tenderness
  • nausea
  • pain, swelling, itching, or redness where the injection was given
  • vomiting

Talk to your doctor about what you should do if you experience any of these side effects. Very rarely, women may have difficulty breathing after having the vaccine. If this happens, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Can males also get the vaccine?
One of the HPV vaccines available in Canada can also be used by boys and young men aged 9 to 26 years. For males, the HPV vaccine helps protect against certain types of HPV that cause HPV infection and genital warts. The dosing schedule is the same as that for females - 3 shots over a period of 6 months. Vaccination against HPV in males is also important because it will help prevent the spread of HPV infection.

What's next?
To find out more about HPV and all the things that you can do to protect yourself, including practicing safer sex, having regular Pap tests and checkups, and getting vaccinated, speak to your doctor. Not all forms of protection against HPV may be right for you, so talk to your doctor.

Getting vaccinated against HPV isn't a substitute for regular Pap tests and checkups. Even if you've been vaccinated against HPV, you'll still need routine Pap tests and checkups.