Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (Cervarix, Gardasil)

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Human papillomavirus vaccine is offered to girls aged 11-14 years as part of the UK immunisation schedule. It protects against cervical cancer.

It will be injected into a muscle in your upper arm or thigh.

The most common side-effects are tenderness at the site of the injection and headache. These should soon pass.

Type of medicineHuman papillomavirus vaccine
Used forPrevention of cervical cancer caused by human papillomavirus
Also calledCervarix®; Gardasil®
Available asIntramuscular injection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name given to a group of viruses that can affect the skin and the moist membranes that line different parts of your body such as your mouth, throat and genital area. There are many types of HPV. Most types of the virus do not cause any symptoms and will be cleared completely from your body by your immune system. Some types of HPV, however, are known to increase the risk of developing particular cancers. In particular, types HPV16 and HPV18, are known to be involved in the development of most cases of cancer of the neck of the womb, or cervical cancer. Two other types of HPV (types HPV6 and HPV11) are the cause of most cases of genital warts, a common sexually transmitted infection.

Two HPV vaccines are available in the UK: Cervarix® and Gardasil®. Cervarix® protects against HPV16 and HPV18, which means it offers protection against cervical cancer. Gardasil® protects against HPV16, HPV18 and HPV6 and HPV11, which means that it protects against genital warts as well as cervical cancer.

It is currently recommended in the UK that HPV vaccine is given to girls aged 11-14 years as part of the standard immunisation schedule. Immunisation takes place in schools.

Some medicines are not suitable for people with certain conditions, and sometimes a medicine may only be used if extra care is taken. For these reasons, before having HPV vaccine it is important that your nurse or doctor knows:

  • If you feel unwell or have a high temperature.
  • If you could be pregnant.
  • If you have been told you have a weakened immune system. This may be a result of an illness or taking medicines.
  • If you have a condition that makes you bleed more than is normal, such as haemophilia.
  • If you have ever had an allergic reaction to a medicine. You should not have the vaccine if you have had an allergic reaction to a previous HPV vaccine.
  • If you are taking any other medicines. This includes any medicines you are taking which are available to buy without a prescription, such as herbal and complementary medicines. Taking the contraceptive pill does not interfere with the vaccine.
  • Before you have the vaccine, ask to read the manufacturer's printed information leaflet from inside the pack. The manufacturer's leaflet will give you more information about the vaccine and a full list of side-effects which you may experience from it.
  • The vaccine is given by injection into your upper arm or thigh. You will be given the same brand of vaccine for each of your doses.
  • From September 2014, the vaccination programme includes two doses. The first dose is given to girls during school year 8 and the second dose is given 6-24 months later. In practice, this often means that the first dose is given during school year 8, and the second dose during school year 9. 
  • Girls who have not had their first dose by the time they are 15 years old will be offered a three-dose schedule - in this case the second and third doses will be given 1-2 months and 6 months, respectively, after the first dose. Likewise, girls who started the vaccination programme before September 2014 and who are part-way through the three-dose schedule, will be given all three doses as originally planned.
  • If you have a high temperature or you are acutely unwell at the time of a scheduled immunisation, your doctor or nurse may recommend delaying the vaccine. A minor illness (such as a common cold) will not interfere with the vaccine. If a delay is advised, you will be given an alternative appointment for the vaccination to be given.
  • The HPV vaccines do not prevent all cases of cervical cancer. You should still attend for regular cervical screening tests, even if you have received the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is generally very safe, although at least 1 in 10 people who have the vaccine have mild side-effects for a day or so. The table below contains some of the most common effects associated with the vaccine. You will find a full list in the manufacturer's information leaflet supplied with your medicine. Speak with your doctor or pharmacist if any of the following side-effects continue or become troublesome.

Common human papillomavirus vaccine side-effectsWhat can I do if I experience this?
Pain, swelling, redness, bruising or itching around the site of the injectionThis should soon pass
Headache, aching muscles or jointsIf troublesome, take a dose of a suitable painkiller
Feeling tired, raised temperatureThis should soon pass
Feeling sick, diarrhoea, abdominal painEat simple meals - avoid rich or spicy meals. Drink plenty of water

If you experience any other symptoms which you think may be due to the vaccine, speak with your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

  • It is unlikely that you will be asked to store the vaccine before it is given to you. If, however, this does happen, keep it refrigerated until it is needed.
  • Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.

If you are having an operation or any dental treatment, tell the person carrying out the treatment which medicines you are taking.

If you have any questions about this medicine, ask your pharmacist.

Further reading & references

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Helen Allen
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
28759 (v2)
Last Checked:
Next Review:
The Information Standard - certified member

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