The human papillomavirus (HPV) test detects
the presence of the human papillomavirus, a virus that can lead to the
development of genital warts, abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer.
Your doctor might recommend the HPV test
- Your Pap test was abnormal, showing atypical squamous cells of
undetermined significance (ASCUS)
- You’re age 30 or older
The HPV test is available only to women; no
HPV test yet exists to detect the virus in men. However, men can be infected
with HPV and pass the virus along to their sex partners.
The HPV test is a screening test for
cervical cancer, but the test doesn’t tell you whether you have cancer.
Instead, the test detects the presence of HPV, the virus that causes cervical
cancer, in your system. Certain types of HPV — including types 16 and 18 —
increase your cervical cancer risk.
Knowing whether you have a type of HPV that
puts you at high risk of cervical cancer means that you and your doctor can
better decide on the next steps in your health care. Those steps might include
follow-up monitoring, further testing, or treatment of abnormal or precancerous
Routine use of the HPV test in women under
age 30 isn’t recommended, nor is it very helpful. HPV spreads through sexual
contact and is very common in young women, so, frequently, the test results
will be positive. However, HPV infections often clear on their own within a
year or two. Cervical changes that lead to cancer take several years — often 10
years or more — to develop. For these reasons, you might follow a course of
watchful waiting instead of undergoing treatment for cervical changes resulting
from an HPV infection.
No special preparation is necessary before
you have an HPV test. However, since an HPV test often is done at the same time
as a Pap test, you can take these measures to make both tests as accurate as
- Avoid intercourse, douching, or using any vaginal medicines or
spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before the test.
- Try not to schedule the test during your menstrual period. The test
can be done, but your doctor can collect a better sample of cells at another
time in your cycle.
Results from your HPV test will come back
as either positive or negative.
- Positive HPV test. A positive test result means that you have a type of high-risk HPV
that’s linked to cervical cancer. It doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer
now, but it’s a warning sign that cervical cancer could develop in the future.
Your doctor will probably recommend a follow-up test in a year to see if the
infection has cleared or to check for signs of cervical cancer.
- Negative HPV test. A negative test result means that you don’t have any of the types
of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Depending on your test results, your doctor
may recommend one of the following as a next step:
- Normal monitoring. If you’re over age 30, your HPV test is negative and your Pap test
is normal, you’ll follow the generally recommended schedule for repeating both
tests in five years.
- Colposcopy. In this follow-up procedure, your doctor uses a special magnifying
lens (colposcope) to more closely examine your cervix.
- Biopsy. In this procedure, sometimes done in conjunction with colposcopy,
your doctor takes a sample of cervical cells (biopsy) to be examined more
closely under a microscope.
- Removal of abnormal
cervical cells. To prevent abnormal cells from
developing into cancerous cells, your doctor may suggest a procedure to remove
the areas of tissue that contain the abnormal cells.
- Seeing a specialist. If your Pap test or HPV test results are abnormal, your health care
provider will probably refer you to a gynecologist for a colposcopic exam. If
test results show that you might have cancer, you may be referred to a doctor
who specializes in treating cancers of the female genital tract (gynecologic
oncologist) for treatment.
Keywords: HPV test; the human