HPV vaccines

HPV is a common virus. It affects the skin and mucosa (the moist membrane that lines parts of the body, such as the lining of the mouth, the anus and the cervix). Some types of HPV are known to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer – these are HPV types 16 and 18.

Vaccines can help prevent infection with HPV. In time, it is hoped that at least 7 in 10 (70%) of cases of cervical cancer will be prevented. There are two vaccines currently available across the UK:

  • Gardasil®
  • Cervarix®.

There is a nationwide programme to vaccinate all girls aged 11 to 13. But girls up to 18 can get the vaccine on the NHS. Vaccinations can also be given privately. Research is being done to see if it is beneficial to give the vaccination to boys as well.

If you already have HPV or have cell changes in the cervix (CIN), there is no evidence that the vaccination can help. Women should still attend regular cervical screening to pick up any changes that can lead to cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer and vaccination

About 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year.

Vaccines that help prevent cervical cancer are a major step forward in women's healthcare. It is hoped that the vaccines will prevent at least 7 in 10 (70%) of the most common type of cervical cancer (squamous cell cervical cancer).

The vaccines work by preventing infection with the human papilloma virus.


The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a common virus. Over 100 different types of HPV have been identified, and each is known by a number. HPV affects the skin and the mucosa. The mucosa is the moist membrane that lines the body, for example in the mouth, throat, anus and cervix.

Some types of HPV cause harmless skin warts (papillomas) that can appear on the hands and feet. HPV types 6 and 11 affect the genital area and can cause genital warts, but they do not cause cervical cancer. These types are called low-risk HPV.

Other types of HPV are known to increase the risk of developing particular cancers. These are referred to as high-risk HPV. HPV types 16 and 18 are high-risk types. They can lead to abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix (called cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia or CIN).

CIN is not cancer, but if it is left untreated, in some women it can develop into cancer over a number of years. Treatment for CIN works very well and the risk of it coming back is low.

How HPV is diagnosed

HPV infection of the cervix is mainly diagnosed in women as a result of the cervical screening programme. A woman may be told she has HPV when she gets her cervical screening result. If an HPV infection is present, changes in the appearance of the cells can sometimes be seen when they are looked at under a microscope. In England and Northern Ireland, your sample may be tested for high-risk types of HPV as part of the screening process. And in some parts of England, testing for HPV is the first test done on the cervical screening sample. This is called primary HPV testing. You can find out more about this from the NHS cervical screening programme.

Women who have one or more abnormal smear test results will be referred to a colposcopy clinic. If the abnormality is very mild, they may not be referred until they have had two or three abnormal results in a row. In the colposcopy, a nurse or doctor will look at their cervix using an instrument like a microscope (called a colposcope). During the test, the nurse or doctor can put a solution on the cervix. It makes any abnormal cells infected with HPV turn white. We have a video about colposcopy and abnormal screening results. In it, colposcopy nurse Joyce explains what a colposcopy is and what to expect if you have one.

Most women have HPV at some point in their lives without it causing any harm. There is no treatment for HPV, but the immune system can usually get rid of it quickly by itself.

It is important that women are aware of the cervical screening programme. Regular cervical smear tests can pick up abnormal cell changes, which can be treated a long time before they develop into cancer.

Having a colposcopy after an abnormal screening test

Hear from Joyce, Nurse Colposcopist, and Kacy about what a colposcopy is and what to expect on the day.

Having a colposcopy after an abnormal screening test

Hear from Joyce, Nurse Colposcopist, and Kacy about what a colposcopy is and what to expect on the day.

HPV vaccines

There is a UK-wide HPV vaccination programme for girls aged 11 to 13. Two vaccines are available to prevent infection with HPV. These are called Gardasil® and Cervarix®.

Gardasil protects against four types of HPV:

  • Types 16 and 18 (which are high risk and can cause cervical cancer).
  • Types 6 and 11 (which are low risk and do not cause cervical cancer, but cause genital warts).

Cervarix protects against HPV types 16 and 18.

Both vaccines are licensed in the UK, which means doctors can give (prescribe) them in this country. Gardasil can be prescribed for females between the ages of 9 to 26. Cervarix can be given to females aged 10 to 25.

The vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV. Women may be infected with more than one type, so it is not guaranteed that vaccination will prevent all cervical cancers. However, it is expected that vaccination will prevent most of the more serious pre-cancerous changes (CIN 2 and 3). Gardasil is also expected to prevent most genital warts.

Since September 2012, the vaccine used in the UK’s national vaccination programme has been Gardasil.

Availability of the HPV vaccines

All 11 to 13-year-old girls in the UK are now routinely offered an HPV vaccination. Schools give a letter and a permission (consent) form to parents, explaining what is involved.

Girls are offered the vaccination at this age because it is just before puberty begins. The immune system is at its strongest point and the vaccination works best when the immune system is strong.

Girls can have the HPV vaccination on the NHS up to the age of 18. If a girl is over the age of 15, she will need three doses of the vaccine. It is also possible to get the vaccines privately.

There is some research to suggest boys and men may also benefit from the vaccine. When more research has been done, a decision will be made about whether to include boys in the vaccination programme.

How the HPV vaccines are given

They are given by injection into the muscle, usually in the upper arm or thigh. Two separate doses are needed for 11 to 13 year olds. The second dose is given at least six months after the first dose and no later than two years after the first dose. If the girl is over the age of 15, she will need a third dose.

Possible side effects of HPV vaccines

Both vaccines seem to have few side effects. The main ones include:

  • redness at the injection site
  • pain and swelling at the injection site.

Other mild side effects include:

  • a slightly raised temperature
  • itching
  • a rash
  • dizziness
  • sickness
  • diarrhoea
  • a headache
  • muscle aches.

Can the vaccines get rid of HPV if I already have it?

No, there is no evidence that the vaccine works in anyone who already has HPV infection or abnormal cells changes in the cervix (CIN).

Cervical screening

Women will still need to have their routine cervical smear tests. This is because there are other types of HPV linked with cervical cancer, which the vaccines are not active against. The vaccines are not a substitute for cervical screening.

We have more information about the cervical screening programme.

What we don't yet know about HPV vaccines

  • How many cases of cervical cancer will be prevented by vaccines that only protect against some types of HPV.
  • How long the vaccines will last. So far, evidence shows that HPV vaccinations can prevent infection for about 10 years, but it might be longer. This is currently being researched, to find out if and when booster vaccines will be needed.
  • Whether other types of HPV will become more common and change the risk of developing CIN.
  • Whether boys should eventually be vaccinated as well as girls. Research is looking at whether boys and men would benefit from the HPV vaccination.
  • Whether vaccines can be developed for people who already have HPV or abnormal cells.
  • Research trials are currently looking into new vaccines that could be used in the future.

Back to Potential causes of cancer

Low immunity

People with low immunity are at a higher risk of developing some types of cancer.

Viruses and bacteria

You cannot catch cancer from someone else. But some viruses may increase your risk of developing cancer.

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (or HPV) is a common infection. Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer.