Some 13 million people a year, including teenagers, are infected with a sexually transmitted infection* known as HPV, or human papillomavirus. While in some cases it goes away on its own and does not cause problems, experts call it a serious threat that can lead to cervical, penile and anal cancers.

The good news: A vaccine that’s been in use since 2006 can protect us.

After data showed cancers caused by HPV have spiked in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 approved the HPV vaccine for both men and women ages 27 to 45. Expanding the vaccine to older adults (first approved for people between the ages of 9 and 26), was intended to allow more adults protect themselves from further exposure to possibly cancerous strains of HPV.

Sometimes patients have no symptoms after contracting the virus, health experts say, and find out later that they’ve carried the virus for years, putting partners at risk.

The American Cancer Society recommends testing every five years starting at age 25. Keep in mind, this can be done as part of a Pap test, which is typically recommended every three years. There is no screening available for men, other than a visual exam for genital warts.

Why it matters

Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their health care provider, said Dr. Andrew Zerkle, an ob-gyn at Novant Health Bradford Clinic OB/GYN in Charlotte.

Dr. Andrew Zerkle

Some 80% of sexually active people will be exposed to the virus at some point in their life and the number of men with HPV-related oral cancer has doubled, Zerkle said. “Older patients leaving relationships or who have multiple partners now have the opportunity to feel protected against the virus,” he added.

The virus usually is transmitted through direct contact of the genital skin or mucous membranes during intercourse or oral sex. But Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, protects against nine different strains that range from low-risk (the ones that cause genital warts) to high risk (the ones that cause cancer).

Plus, studies have shown that the vaccine offers nearly 100% protection in the nine strains it targets.

Cost and coverage

Gardasil is administered in three shots over six months. Each shot ranges from $130 to $200. Check your insurance policy to see if it’s covered.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had previously approved the vaccine for all preteens (boys and girls) at age 11 or 12, but it can be administered as early as 9 years old.

*Sexually transmitted infections, or STI's, are also known as sexually transmitted diseases, or STD's.