Should my son get the HPV shots?

Aug 16, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Genital warts and cancers caused by HPV are probably the last things on your mind if you have a tween son. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends boys get the series of HPV shots at 11 or 12 years old, but is it worth it?

Here's what you need to know to make an informed decision for your son.

What is HPV and what does the vaccine do?

Eric McGrath, MD, infectious disease specialist at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, explains, "Human papillomavirus is the most common virus that is passed from one person to another through direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity."

As for Gardasil, the vaccine? "It contains a protein that helps the body’s immune system produce antibodies against HPV — without causing an actual infection," McGrath explains.

Learn more about understanding HPV>>

How can HPV affect my son?

Most of what I know about HPV relates to women -- HPV tests are offered routinely at GYN visits, and celebrities like Marissa Jaret Winokur have shared their stories of surviving cervical cancer after contracting the virus. I didn't know men could pass HPV to their female partners, and the thought of protecting not only my sons, but their future partners, too, seems like a no-brainer. Then again, "Most HPV types cause no symptoms and the body’s immune system clears them naturally within two years of infection," explains McGrath.

That information makes me pause and think maybe he shouldn't get the vaccine. But knowing HPV can cause genital warts or cancer of the anus, penis, and back of the throat makes me (almost) say "yes" to the shots.

Isn't my son way too young to need this vaccine?

What about the risks?

McGrath says, "Common side effects include pain, swelling, itching, bruising, and redness at the injection site, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, vomiting and fainting. The CDC and FDA have determined that Gardasil continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh any risks. Parents of boys can discuss the administration of Gardasil with their sons’ health care providers and young men can also discuss this vaccine with their doctors."

Even if you've had "the talk" with your son, it doesn't mean he'll tell you when he becomes sexually active. McGrath explains, "The vaccines will not treat or get rid of existing HPV infections. Also, HPV vaccines do not treat or cure health problems caused by an HPV infection that occurred before vaccine administration."

More about why the CDC recommends routine HPV vaccines for boys>>

Still unsure about this "now or never" decision for your son? Me, too.

But armed with this information, I'll be able to discuss HPV and Gardasil with my son, then make an informed decision. I hope you will, too.

Read more

Gardasil for your son
Does the HPV vaccine promote teen promiscuity?
Human papillomavirus vaccine