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How to Test for HPV

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pap smear for hpv test

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  • The HPV test is typically recommended to women 30 years old and older, as it is the preferred method to detect precancers or early cervical cancer in this age group
  • If the HPV test reveals that you have an HPV infection plus an abnormal Pap test, your physician will discuss with you other diagnostic tests to further check for other health problems

Women who are concerned that they have been exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) may undergo HPV testing to confirm if they have the virus in their system. It is usually conducted to see if you have a high-risk HPV infection.1

Are Pap Tests and HPV Tests the Same?

While the procedure for these two tests is typically similar, wherein a sample of cells is lightly scraped or brushed off and collected from the cervix, there also are notable differences in what the two tests are looking for.

A Papanicolaou (Pap) test, also known as a Pap smear or cervical smear,2 looks for cell changes or the presence of abnormal cells in the cervix, which may or may not be precancerous. However, the HPV test is used to detect the presence of the human papillomavirus — it does not detect cell changes at all. This test can also determine the type of HPV you have in your body, and whether it is a type that is high-risk for cancer, such as types 16, 18, 31 and 45.3

While they’re looking for different things, a Pap test and HPV test can be conducted at the same time, and you will not notice any difference in your exam if you have both tests. Either the same swab or a second swab is used. When the exams are done together, it’s called co-testing.4

Who Is Advised to Get the HPV Test?

Currently, there is no HPV test for men.5 For women, the HPV test is typically recommended if you are 30 years old or older, as it is the preferred method to detect precancers or early cervical cancer in this age group. (The Pap test alone is recommended for women ages 21 to 65, and it tests only for cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells) and cancer; it cannot detect whether you have vaginal or vulvar cancers caused by HPV).6

While women between 21 and 29 years old should get a Pap smear every three years if they have no history of abnormal Pap smears, having an HPV test is not advised, as this virus is so common in this age group.7

However, should a Pap test come back with abnormal results, an HPV test may then be recommended. The presence of atypical squamous cells8 (also known as AS-CUS, pronounced “ask us”) is the most common example of an abnormal Pap test result. AS-CUS are not always precancers, but they are not normal, either.

As already noted, currently, the HPV test is available only to women as there are no FDA-approved HPV tests for men yet. There’s also no approved test for other parts of the body, including the throat or mouth.9

Also, HPV testing is not recommended as a precursor to being vaccinated, even though the vaccine offers no protection against any vaccine-relevant HPVs that you may be harboring at the time of vaccination. The vaccine also does not treat or cure any HPVs that you may be positive for at the time of vaccination.10

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Preparations Before an HPV Test

If you’re scheduled to take an HPV test, make sure that you do not douche or use vaginal medicines or tampons for at least 48 hours before the test. Just before the exam, your physician will also ask you to empty your bladder.

The physician will then insert an instrument called a speculum inside your vagina. This will help gently spread apart your vaginal walls so the cervix and the inside of your vagina can be examined. A cotton swab or a small brush will then be used to collect several cervical cell samples. These are usually taken from the visible part of the cervix, as well as from the endocervical canal. The samples will then be placed in a collection tube and sent to a lab to be analyzed.

There’s very little risk involved with an HPV test, although you may feel discomfort when the speculum is inserted, particularly if your vagina is narrow, or if it is irritated. Some pulling or pressure may be felt as well when the samples are being collected.

After the procedure, a small amount of vaginal bleeding may occur or you may see a grayish-green discharge. Avoid sexual intercourse until your physician gives you the go-signal. You will typically get the results after one or two weeks.11

What if the HPV Test Comes Back Positive?

If the HPV test reveals that you have an HPV infection plus an abnormal Pap test, your physician will discuss with you other diagnostic tests to further check for other health problems. However, if you have an HPV infection but no cell changes are apparent on your pap test results, then you can opt for either of these two options:

After 12 months, you can undergo co-testing — In most cases, no signs of the virus will appear, so you can go back to just regular Pap screening. If the virus is still present or more changes are seen on the Pap results, then more testing, and possible treatment procedures, may be advised.

Your doctor may also recommend specifically testing for both 16 or 18 — These are the two types that are most associated with cervical cancer. If the tests come back positive, then more testing will be needed. If the results are negative, you will be advised to go through co-testing in 12 months.


HPV: Introduction

What Is HPV?

Oral HPV

How Is HPV Transmitted?

HPV Vaccine

HPV in Men

HPV in Women

HPV Types

HPV Causes

HPV Symptoms

HPV Warts

HPV Treatment

HPV Test

How to Get Rid of HPV

Living with HPV

Does HPV Go Away?

How Do You Get HPV?

Is HPV Curable?

Is HPV Contagious?

How Long Does HPV Last?


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