If you're the parent of a tween or teen girl, you probably know about the HPV vaccine, commonly known as Gardasil, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006.  The first vaccine developed to prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts due to human papillomavirus (HPV), the three-shot regimen is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for girls ages 11 and 12 and "catch-up" shots for girls 13 to 26.

Every year in the United States, some 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and almost 4,000 die from this disease, according to the CDC. Most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts are caused by the HPV. The vaccine does not take the place of regular Pap tests, which are an important screening test for cervical cancer.

In October of this year,  the FDA approved Gardasil for use in men and boys--ages 9 through 26--to prevent genital warts. Some 2 in every 1,000 men are newly diagnosed annually with genital warts, according to the FDA.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States and most genital warts are caused by the virus, the FDA said in a statement. The HPV vaccine prevents against most genital warts.

Though the warts are not life threatening, explains Dr. Jason Greenfield,  urologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, they often cannot be treated just with a prescription cream and may require surgical removal.  The HPV vaccine can also help prevent the spread of warts, says urologist Dr. Paul Shin of George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "Some people can carry the HPV virus and show no symptoms, so it can be easily passed on without people even knowing about it," he explains.

What Are the Risks?

So should everyone in the recommended age group get the vaccine? Like other vaccine, Gardasil is not risk-free. However, the risks are small.

From when Gardasil was approved by the FDA in June, 2006 until August 2008, more than 20 million doses of the HPV vaccine were distributed in the United States. In that time period, some 10,326 "adverse events" were reported after receiving the shot , according to Contraceptive Technology Update. Fainting and dizziness were the most common side effects, but some research suggests that, in girls 13 years and older, increased fainting occurs after they receive any vaccine.

The third injection of the series can be irritating and even painful, says Dr. Ben Jenson, who was part of the team that originally developed Gardasil. "But it is a very safe vaccine," he says. "We have enough information to know the benefits outweigh the risks."

The ideal time for a girl to get the vaccine is before she begins having sexual activity, says Dr. Sheila Chhutani, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

"But it's still good for girls to get the vaccine even after sexual activity starts in order to protect against any HPV virus that the girls have not been exposed to already," says Chhutani.