Your HPV Vaccine Questions, Answered

test tube with the HPV vaccine in the hand with a glove on a blue background

If there were a vaccine that could ward off STIs and cancers, people would line up for it—right? 

You’d think the answer to that question would be, unequivocally, “yes!” And yet, plenty of folks say “no” to a vaccine that prevents the cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV. 

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. (It’s so prevalent, in fact, nearly 80% of people will get it in their lifetimes.) Human papillomavirus is the cause of nearly all cervical cancers, and can also lead to cancers of the throat, vulva, vagina, penis or anus. 

Luckily, there’s a vaccine for that.

Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine approved by the FDA in 2014, stops nearly 90% of cancers caused by HPV. It also guards against the two strains of HPV that cause the majority of genital warts.

Since most adults have already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine is recommended for girls and boys ages 11 or 12. However, it can be given as early as age nine—and as late as 26. (Some doctors even recommend it for people as old as 45.)

HPV vaccination is preventing cancer-causing infections—so why aren’t more teens and children receiving them? 

Despite its overwhelming safety and efficacy, fewer than half of American adolescents have been fully vaccinated against HPV. And while adoption is low for a variety of reasons, myths, misinformation, lack of knowledge about the vaccine still are a huge contributing factor. 

To help clear the air about this important and potentially life-saving vaccination, we sat down with Dr. Lisa Taulbee, a member of ZOOM+Care’s Women’s Health & Gynecology Team. Read on to learn more about the vaccine, who it’s for (spoiler: it’s not just for girls!), and why you should consider it for yourself or your child.

ZOOM+Care women's health doctor
Dr. Lisa Taulbee

1. Hi Lisa! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about HPV vaccinations today. CaN You Tell us WHAT HPV is?

Human papillomavirus, known as HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. There are hundreds of different strains that infect different areas of the body—some may cause warts on the hands and feet, while others may infect the mucous membranes, such as the genitals and cervix in women. The strains of HPV that are considered to be high-risk can cause certain types of cancer, including cervical cancer.

2. How common is the virus?

It’s estimated that about 80% of sexually active men and women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. However, many experts believe that all sexually active adults have been infected at some point in their lives.

3. How does HPV spread?

HPV is sexually transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact—unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

4. What are the risk factors of HPV?

The risk factors of HPV are dependent upon a patient’s number of sexual partners, as well as their age. If they start having sex earlier, they’re more susceptible to infection.

5. What are some common misconceptions about HPV?

There’s a perception that men are not affected by (HPV) because they can be asymptomatic. The truth is, men and women alike can be exposed to the virus. Even though men might not show symptoms, they play a key role in the transmission of HPV to women.

It’s also important to note that there is no currently approved test for HPV in men.

7. What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is a series of three injections over the course of six months. At ZOOM+Care, we use a vaccine called Gardasil 9. It protects against nine strains of the virus, mostly targeting the high-risk strains that can cause cancer.

8. Why are HPV vaccines important, and what are the benefits?

To put it simply, HPV vaccination is cancer prevention. The HPV virus causes an estimated 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the U.S., and the vaccine can prevent more than 32,000 of these cancers from ever developing.

9.Who can benefit from the HPV vaccine? Is it just for women? 

The HPV vaccine benefits both males and females. We recommended begining vaccination at age 11 or 12, but it’s approved through age 45.

11. Are there any side effects of the HPV vaccine?

The side effects associated with the HPV vaccination are injection site reactions, and possible headaches, nausea, fevers, and dizziness.

12. Are there any myths about the HPV vaccine?

There is a stigma surrounding the HPV vaccine because it targets an infection that is sexually transmitted—and it’s typically given to children who are not yet sexually active. Parents don’t like to think about their child being sexually active one day. But, the whole point of vaccinating early is to administer the vaccine well before sexual activity begins. It’s the best way to protect children from life-threatening cancers later on.

Many parents also have concerns that vaccination would encourage or support youth promiscuity—a belief which is not supported by data.

13. What else can you do to Prevent HPV?

Barrier methods, such as condoms, are a form of birth control that can prevent infection—though it isn’t 100% guaranteed to be effective. 

Studies also show that having an IUD may lower person’s risk of cervical cancer by helping to fight off an HPV infection.

14. Can people already infected by HPV benefit from vaccination?

People already infected by HPV can still benefit from vaccination. The vaccine provides immunity against several strains of the virus. So, someone that’s been exposed to one strain can still prevent contraction of strains they have not yet been exposed to. 

More questions? We’re here. Schedule a Women’s Health visit today!


It’s World AIDS Day—Let’s Talk About PrEP!

Pills of prescription PrEP Pills for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis to help protect people from HIV.

There are approximately 1.1 million people in the US living with HIV today. World AIDS Day, celebrated each December 1st, is an opportunity to increase awareness and knowledge about HIV, support those living with the virus, and champion efforts to prevent new infections.

One such effort? Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP: a once-a-day pill that prevents HIV-negative people from becoming infected.

PrEP is over 90% effective at preventing HIV infection. When used as directed, it’s one of the most powerful tools for stopping the spread of AIDS— and yet, the drug is largely underutilized.

A myriad of barriers drives low usage rates: cost, accessibility, and—perhaps most unfortunately—stigma.

Even today, HIV is unfairly stigmatized by homophobia. Many—especially those in the queer community—are hesitant to seek out drugs like PrEP for fear of feeling judged.

Moreover, when you talk about HIV prevention, you have to talk about sex—which, let’s face it, can be uncomfortable. Many doctors and patients shy away from discussing PrEP due to feelings of embarrassment.

At Zoom, we want to eliminate factors that prevent people from seeking care. We encourage open, honest discussions about HIV risk; we strive to create a stigma-free environment where people can access screening and prevention options that are safe, effective, and meet their needs.

Talking openly about HIV screening and prevention confronts the stigma associated with the virus. It also helps normalize drugs like PrEP as a routine part of preventive healthcare, just like birth control. That’s why— in anticipation of World AIDS Day—we sat down with one of our providers, Allison Ehrlich, for a frank discussion about this life-saving drug. Read on:

Hi Allison! Thank you so much for sitting down to talk PrEP with us. First things first: What is PrEP?

PrEP, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is the act of taking daily medications, such as Truvada, that can help prevent contracting HIV through sexual activity and IV drug use in combination with safer sex practices including using condoms and lube, talking with your partner about HIV status, and getting tested regularly for STIs. 

Why do we need new HIV prevention tools like PrEP? Aren’t condoms enough?

We have come a long way in the medical field with testing, treating and preventing HIV with PrEP, Truvada being one of these medications. Condoms are a great tool when used with PrEP to help protect yourself from HIV in addition to other STIs, but are not enough alone. They can break, may not be used properly, or not provide adequate coverage to reduce the risk of transmission of an STI. 

Who is a good candidate for PrEP? How do I know if it’s right for me? 

PrEP is recommended for the following populations: men who have sex with men (MSM), sex with multiple partners, involved in an open relationship, engage in sexual activity with a partner who is HIV+, or uses IV drugs. 

PrEP might be right for you if you have the following risk factors:

  • Have one or more HIV+ or injection sexual partners
  • Having sex with someone in a sexual network where HIV is common
  • Having a prior STI
  • Participate in sex work
  • Using condoms inconsistently or never
  • Share injection equipment 

It is important to talk with your healthcare provider and be honest about your sexual and medical history and lifestyle risk factors. They can help determine if PrEP is right for you. 

How effective is PrEP, and how soon does PrEP become effective after you start it? 

Per the CDC: “Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken daily. Among people who inject drugs, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV by at least 74% when taken daily.”

PrEP when taken daily takes at least 7 days for maximum protection against HIV.

Are there any side effects?

Side effects in clinical trials included nausea or headaches, but usually subside over several weeks. 

If I’m taking PrEP, do I still need to get tested for STIs?

Yes, you need to get tested every 3 months for HIV, and every 6 months for other STIs—sooner if you have any concerns. 

I’m worried I’ve been exposed to HIV. Is PrEP a good option for me?

No, PrEP is pre-exposure prophylaxis and is used before you come into contact with HIV. If you are worried you have already been exposed to HIV, then you will need PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis. This is a month-long course of therapy that needs to be started within 72 hours of exposure. 

I’m nervous about talking to my doctor about PrEP. How should I bring it up?

ZOOM+Care is a great place to talk about PrEP, because we understand it can be a sensitive topic. It is important to be clear about wanting to start PrEP. We will need to discuss your medical and sexual history to help us determine your risk factors, if you are a good candidate for PrEP, and how to best assist you in getting Truvada.

Why does ZOOM+Care support the use of PrEP?

PrEP, in combination with safer sex practices and other prevention tools, is an amazing method to help protect yourself from becomming infected with HIV. ZOOM+Care is open 7 days a week, holidays, and have clinics open until midnight providing easy access to care. Our central pharmacy is happy to assist with Truvada for PrEP and discuss ways to reduce the monthly cost. You can go online at zoomcare.com or on the iOS app to schedule a visit.

Interested in HIV screening, education, or prevention? We’re here. Schedule an appointment today.

Your Biggest Sexual Health Questions, Answered

Condoms on a blue background. ZOOM+Care sexual health.
 

Sexuality is a normal, healthy, and positive aspect of everyday life. Yet, even in the 21st century, speaking about sex is taboo—and that carries serious consequences. When people feel ashamed to talk about their sexual health, they’re less likely to get tested, treated, and receive the information they need to prevent infections and save lives. 

At ZOOM+Care, we believe sexual health should have the same stigma as any other kind of health: none. That’s why, in honor of Sexual Health Month and World Sexual Health Day, we’re answering your most most pressing sexual health questions. Whether its vaginal pain, STIs, or mysterious genital spots, no topic is too taboo. We’re here to give you the info you need to empower yourself.

Before we dive in, a quick note about the language we use in this article. We want to make sure everyone feels included when talking about sexual health. Many of our inquirers referred to their gender when asking questions, which is totally normal. However, since not all men have penises and not all women have vaginas, we’re going to respond using words that refer to genitals rather than gender. And now that we’ve got that out of the way…

Do condoms protect you from all STIs?

First off, it’s great that you want to do everything you can to protect yourself from STIs! Here’s the deal with condoms: when used correctly, they’re really effective at preventing contact with bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids) that can carry infections. However, they don’t eliminate the risk of STIs. 

Some infections, such as herpes, genital warts, and syphilis can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. Since condoms don’t cover all your skin down there, there’s still a chance you can get an STI. 

Bottom line: If you’re sexually active, it’s important to get tested regularly, even if you use condoms religiously. 

I’m a woman, and I frequently experience pain during sex. Is this normal? 

The most important thing to realize is that discomfort during sex is nothing to be ashamed of. If you regularly experience painful sex, it’s not your fault, and you’re certainly not alone. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an estimated 75% of people with vaginas will experience uncomfortable sex during their lifetimes. 

The truth is, there are dozens of reasons for painful sex, ranging from emotional factors to infection. Today, we’ll go over a few of the most common causes. (However, we recommend consulting with a provider you trust before moving forward with any treatment.)

One common cause of painful sex is insufficient lubrication, which results in friction and discomfort. If you’re going through menopause, are postpartum or breastfeeding, you may have low estrogen levels. This can cause dryness and thin vaginal tissues, making your vagina especially sensitive and susceptible to tears. Similarly, you can experience pain from a lack of arousal. Arousal changes the sensations of genital touch and insertion, helping them feel more pleasurable. Be sure to take your time before sex, and give your body a chance to lubricate, so dryness isn’t an issue.

Another cause of pain during sex is endometriosis—a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus grows outside your uterus. Endometriosis causes uncomfortable sex in approximately half the people who have it, with pain ranging from mild to excruciating. To prevent discomfort, try switching up positions, and plan sex for times of the month when you’re experiencing less pain. (Endometriosis is especially painful before and during your period.) 

Sexual pain can also be the result of an infection (such as a yeast infection), which can cause your vaginal tissue to become inflamed. Yeast infections affect your ability to self-lubricate as well, presenting yet another barrier to enjoyable, pain-free sex.

Other causes of painful sex include uterine fibroids—benign, non-cancerous uterine growths made of muscle tissue—and ovarian cysts. 

Any time you experience acute pain during sex, you should get it checked out. Zoom’s team of every-day providers and Women’s Health experts can help you sort out what’s going on (and get it treated) so you can get back to enjoying your sex life. 

Is a yeast infection an STD? 

The short answer is no, but you’re definitely not alone in thinking so. Eighty-one percent of patients believe yeast infections are sexually transmitted through their partners and can spread to another person during sex. In reality, yeast infections are the result of pH imbalance inside of the vagina (or head of the penis—people with penises can get them, too!) that leads to a buildup of yeast. Often, they’re caused by your hormones being off-kilter.

Other causes include hormonal contraceptives, stress, a weakened immune system, recent antibiotic use, and environmental conditions, like not changing out of sweaty clothes after a workout. And while a yeast infection isn’t an STD, there is a chance sex can lead to one. Sometimes, your body chemistry can have an adverse reaction to another person’s genital yeast and bacteria, which causes yeast to grow.

Is it normal to feel anxious during my period? 

Every period-having person knows—they can really wreak havoc on our bodies. The days (or sometimes even weeks) leading up to that time of the month can bring on any number of unpleasant symptoms, including bloating, cramps, fatigue, acne, breast tenderness, and a myriad of emotional symptoms.

If you’ve noticed your anxiety spike before and during your period, it’s not a coincidence. Hormones regulate our bodies as well as our mental health. During PMS, fluctuations in powerful hormones such as estrogen and progesterone can upset that balance, triggering symptoms like increased anxiety or depression. If you already suffer from an anxiety or mood disorder, these can be more severe before and during your period.

To help ease emotional extremes around your time of month, try staying active with exercise, getting enough sleep, and making small dietary changes such as reducing caffeine and eating more omega-3 fats. Mindfulness practices, such as journaling and meditation, can also help your body to find balance.

Should I get the HPV vaccine? 

We’re not here to tell you what you should do with your body, but let us put it this way: if there were a shot that could prevent STIs and cancers, you’d consider it, right? That’s what the HPV vaccine is for. 

As for why you should consider it, HPV is crazy common. There are over 150 types, and about 80 percent of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Some strains of HPV can lead to cervical, anal, penile and throat cancer, which is why many doctors now recommend the vaccine before you’re even thinking about having sex. 

If you’re already sexually active or have an existing HPV infection already, getting the vaccine won’t treat it. However, it can protect you from getting and spreading other strains of HPV. 

How often should I be having sex? What’s normal?

First of all, there’s no such thing as “normal”, and there’s no one right answer to this question. Like many things in life, it’s best to focus on the quality of sex over the quantity. A healthy sexual relationship is one where both partners are getting their needs met, and—more importantly—are communicating their wants and desires. If your partner wants sex every week and you want it once a month, you should try and negotiate a win-win compromise. 

However,  if your low desire for sex concerns you, you should talk to your doctor.

While every month is the right time to assess your sexual health, we hope you use September as an opportunity to check in with yourself, get tested, and clear up any gaps in your knowledge. Want to talk to a caring professional? Schedule a daily care or gynecology visit today.