Should You Get the HPV Vaccine as an Adult? Here’s What Leading Doctors Suggest

Didn’t get the HPV vaccine as a kid? Experts say it may not be too late to protect yourself against this cancer-causing infection as an adult.

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) refers to a group of sexually transmitted viruses. They’re so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly all sexually active men and women will contract HPV at some point in their lives. Still, just because HPV is widespread doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Many forms of the virus resolve on their own, but certain HPV strains are responsible for at least six types of cancer—including more than 90% of cervical cancers, according to 2021 data in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Public Health scientific journal. While cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women, it’s actually one of the few cancers that’s almost entirely avoidable, thanks to the HPV vaccine.  

“The HPV vaccine prevents cancer, one of only two cancer-fighting vaccines that we have,” says Linda Yancey, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, TX. “The Hepatitis B vaccine is the other.” 

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How does the HPV vaccine work?

The HPV vaccine prevents infection by one of the covered strains, Dr. Yancey says, including those strains that put you at the highest risk for developing cancer. “It has no effect on strains that people acquire before vaccination,” she explains. That’s why the CDC recommends boys and girls ages 11 and 12 receive their HPV vaccination. At that age, most are unlikely to have engaged in sexual activity, while they’re also likely to have the most robust immune response to the vaccine.

“Benefits of the HPV vaccination decline sharply as people get older and start having sex,” says Elissa Meites, MD, a family physician in Atlanta, GA, and lead author of the CDC’s policy note on HPV vaccination for adults that was published in a 2019 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. That’s why most of the 79 million Americans with HPV were infected in their late teens and early twenties. But keep in mind: as a 2020 European study pointed out, it’s possible to contract HPV without having sex (and here are 29 other things doctors want you to know about cervical cancer).  

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Can I get the HPV vaccine as an adult?

Even if you didn’t get vaccinated when you were younger, “catch up” HPV vaccinations are strongly recommended for people under age 26—and it’s currently approved for those up to age 45. Beyond this age, “public health benefits are minimal since only a small percentage of cancers would be prevented by vaccinating [older] adults,” Dr. Meites explains. 

“HPV is usually acquired after someone first becomes sexually active, so it makes the most sense to vaccinate adolescents,” says Mary Montgomery, MD, staff physician in the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. “However, I would recommend the HPV vaccine for anyone between 27 and 45 who has never been sexually active, has had only a few sexual partners, or anticipates … new sexual partners. It makes sense to offer them the vaccine.”

Is it too late to get the HPV vaccine if you have an infection? 

At some point, the vaccine becomes ineffective if a person has been infected by all HPV strains, Dr. Yancey says. “It only works to prevent the infection, not to treat it.” But if you’re unsure, talk to your doctor about your eligibility. “As long as [you] have not been exposed to all the strains, it’s still worth getting the vaccine to prevent getting the ones [you] don’t already have,” she says, adding there are virtually no risks or downsides to getting the HPV vaccine.

Insurance companies typically cover the HPV vaccine, but it is around $300 out of pocket per injection, with two to three doses required. Whether you get the HPV vaccine or not, you should be getting routine cervical cancer screenings from age 21 to 65. (Here’s how often you should get a Pap smear.)

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Sources
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Human Papillomavirus: Vaccinating Boys and Girls"
  • Elissa Meites, MD, a family physician in Atlanta, Georgia, and lead author of the CDC policy note on HPV vaccination for adults, published in a 2019 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
  • Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, "Human Papillomavirus Vaccination for Adults: Updated Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices"
  • Mary Montgomery, MD, staff physician in the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on January 13, 2020

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.