Do You Have to Be a Virgin to Get the HPV Vaccine?

Girl getting vaccine
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It is a common misconception that you must be a virgin to get the human papillomovarus (HPV) vaccines, Cervarix, Gardasil, or Gardasil-9 (which is the only available option in the U.S.). This bit of misinformation may stem from the fact that these vaccines are most effective in women who have not already been exposed to the strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that the vaccine protects against. which are transmitted through sexual contact.

HPV is transmitted through sexual contact (typically skin-to-skin). Importantly, penetration isn't required to contract the virus, so it can be easier to catch than some other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And also unlike some other STDs, it can cause more problems than an infection alone.

Given the prevalence of HPV among sexually active young adults, it is best to vaccinate before the risk of exposure. But that doesn't mean that you have to be a virgin to benefit from the vaccine.

Currently, the only HPV vaccine available in the United States is Gardasil-9. Cervarix and Gardasil are available in other parts of the world.

The Ideal Candidate for HPV Vaccination

HPV vaccination is most effective in adolescents and young adults (ages nine through 26). The HPV vaccine can help protect against disease-causing strains of HPV that can develop into cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer cases. Because of its higher rates of efficacy when administered earlier on, the CDC-recommended target age to receive the vaccine is between 11 or 12 years of age—before most people become sexually active.

That said, the vaccines are FDA-approved for use in women up to age 45. The CDC provisionally recommends the HPV vaccine for adults older than 27 if the doctor deems there could be a benefit based on patient history. 

A 2020 guideline update for HPV vaccination from the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends routine HPV vaccination begin at age 9 due to evidence that earlier initiation makes it more likely for vaccination to be happening on time on a wider scale. ACS does not recommend HPV vaccination after age 26 due to the decreased benefit and a shortage of the vaccine that is expected to continue for several years.

HPV Vaccines Are Not Just for Girls

What most people don't know is that vaccination is highly recommended for young boys as well.

Though only women are at risk for cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers, both men and women are at risk for contracting HPV, which is also known to be a cause of anal cancer, oropharangeal cancer, and genital warts—diseases that both men and women can face. Gardasil-9 has been shown to help protect against all three.

Gardasil, Gardasil-9, Cervarix, and Virginity

You can certainly get an HPV vaccine if you are a virgin. Your doctor may inquire if you are sexually active as a general practice to ensure that you are taking the proper precautions to prevent STDs and pregnancy. As long as you fit the other criteria for the HPV vaccine, including age, your level of sexual activity is not of major concern.

What Strains of HPV Does the Vaccine Prevent?

You've likely heard that there are many different strains of the HPV virus and that not all of these cause cancer. When Gardasil was first approved in 2006, it was the only HPV vaccine available.

Now that there are three different vaccines, it's helpful to understand some of the differences. All three cover the two strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer, 16 and 18. Strains 16 and 18 cause the majority of cervical cancers cases.

HPV virus strains are divided in a few ways:

  • Low-risk Strains: Low-risk strains do not cause cancer, but they can cause genital warts. Roughly 90% of genital warts are caused by types 6 and 11. Warts due to HPV can occur on the genitalia, on the mouth, or in the throat. Less commonly these strains may cause respiratory papillomatosis, wart-like growths that grow in the airways between the mouth and the lungs.
  • High-risk Strains: Infection with high-risk strains of HPV, though most of these are cleared before they become a problem, can lead to cancers of the cervix, penis, anus, vaginal wall, head and neck cancers, and possibly other cancers.

Cancer-causing vs genital wart strains of HPV:

  • Cancer-causing Strains of HPV: Around 70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV 16 and 18. Another 20% of cervical cancers are due to HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52, and 58. Most HPV-induced head and neck cancers are related to HPV 16.
  • Genital Wart-causing Strains of HPV: As noted above, 90% of genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and 11.

Gardasil, Gardasil-9 and Cervarix

The three currently available vaccinations are:

  • Gardisil (which was approved in 2006) offers protection against HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18
  • Cervarix (approved in 2009) offers protection against HPV 16 and 18
  • Gardasil 9 (approved in 2014) offers protection against strains 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. This is the only available vaccine in the U.S.

Do You Need Parental Consent to Get the HPV Vaccine?

Parental consent to receive health care, even preventative health care such as vaccines, falls under each state's legislature.

More HPV Related Resources

Questions abound when it comes to both HPV and immunization against the virus. Below are answers to many of the most common questions regarding HPV:

  • Should you wait to have sex after receiving the vaccine? You will not be fully protected by the vaccine until you have completed the series.The current recommendations for Gardasil-9 are for two vaccinations if you start before age 15, and three vaccinations if you are 15 to 45.
  • Your partner has HPV... now what? It's a good question. Learn more about getting tested and how to protect yourself against HPV as best you can.
  • Can you get HPV from kissing? The jury is still out on this question. It seems from studies that 'French" kissing may raise the risk somewhat, but relative to HPV acquired from genital contact the risk is quite low.
  • Should boys receive the HPV vaccine? There are two main reasons that the HPV vaccine is strongly recommended for boys. The vaccine may decrease their risk for genital warts and also lower the risk that they will transmit the virus on to their partner. As we are learning that HPV causes much more than cervical cancer, for example, penile cancer and many head and neck cancers, it's thought that the HPV vaccine may lower the risk of these cancers in men as well. On average each year in the U.S., 5,700 males are infected with HPV-related head and neck cancers, while one out of every 100 sexually active males has genital warts. 
  • HPV in Men: HPV does, in fact, affect men as well as women. It can cause throat cancer, anal cancer, and penile cancer, as well as genital warts. Unfortunately, it is harder to test for HPV in men.
  • Is penile cancer caused by HPV? While not all penile cancers are caused by HPV, research suggests that many probably are.

Bottom Line

There has been a lot of emotion surrounding the introduction of HPV vaccination for those who aren't yet sexually active. It's important to note, however, that most of those who are today asking if they need to be a virgin to get the HPV vaccine will be sexually active in just a short while. Whether or not you've been sexually active, taking the time to have an honest pre-sex discussion with your partner is important for more reasons than HPV.

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Article Sources
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  8. Population Reference Bureau. How Many Men Have HPV? May 20, 2011.

Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine Safety. Updated 10/27/15.