In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil (the HPV vaccine) for use in women and men aged 27 through 45. Yet while the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for everyone aged 9 to 26, if you’re in the 27 to 45 age range, it’s up to you and your doctor to determine if an HPV vaccination makes sense for you. The HPV vaccination isn’t FDA approved for those over 45 (the vaccine tends to be less effective in older age groups because of prior infections and lower risk of new exposure), but you and your doc can discuss other ways about reducing your risk.
Understanding HPV Risk Prior to Decide Whether or Not the HPV Vaccination is Right for You
Although new HPV infections are most commonly acquired in adolescence and young adulthood, it’s entirely possible to contract HPV at any point in your life. To understand if you’re a good candidate for the vaccine, you can expect your doc to ask a few in-depth questions about your sex life, such as:
How many partners have you had in the last 12 months?
What kind of sexual contact have you had (genital, anal, or oral)?
Do you use protection?
Have you or your partners been diagnosed with an STI in the past two years?
These questions help your doctor assess how likely you are to have previously been exposed to HPV (which lessens the HPV vaccination efficacy) and how likely you are to be newly exposed (which might make you a stronger candidate for the vaccine).
Related: A Guide to STD Testing in Your 40s, 50s, and Beyond
If you expect your sex life to change dramatically—say, you’re getting divorced and plan on dating a lot, or you’re exploring a new, open relationship—you should also let your doctor know. Having a new sex partner is always a risk factor for HPV. And if you’re considering the HPV vaccination, keep in mind it should be administered before potential exposure to HPV through sexual contact. That’s because the vaccine works to prevent infection among people who have not been exposed to vaccine-type HPV before vaccination.
Also, it’s important to note that getting the vaccine won’t cure HPV if you already have it. However, it will protect you against strains of HPV that you have not been exposed to. These could include high-risk types that can lead to development of cervical, anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar, and oropharyngeal cancers, usually after several decades. Though HPV can result in genital warts, most people don’t show any symptoms at all. If you’re wondering if you’ve already been exposed, you can get tested at the same time as your annual Pap smear. (Just like a Pap, HPV testing requires cells from the cervix.)
Related: What is Normal Vaginal pH? Here’s What You Need to Know
If you do end up choosing to get the vaccine, the side effects are likely to be minimal—with injection site pain being the most commonly reported event in a study of more than 15,000 subjects.