The HPV test can help identify your risk of cervical cancer. Learn more about how to prepare and what your results may mean.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) test detects the presence of human papillomavirus, a virus that can lead to the development of genital warts, abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer.
Your doctor may likely recommend the HPV test if:
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 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 cells.
Routine use of the HPV test under age 30 isn't recommended, nor is it very helpful. HPV spreads through sexual contact and is very common in young people — 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 usually 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 immediately.
As with any screening test, an HPV test carries the risk of false-positive or false-negative results.
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 possible:
An HPV test is usually done at the same time as a Pap test — a test that collects cells from your cervix to check for abnormalities or the presence of cancer. An HPV test can be done using the same sample from the Pap test or by collecting a second sample from the cervical canal.
A combination Pap-HPV test is performed in your doctor's office and takes only a few minutes. You may be asked to undress completely or only from the waist down. You'll lie on your back on an exam table with your knees bent. Your heels rest in supports called stirrups.
Your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the vaginal walls apart so that your doctor can easily see your cervix. Inserting the speculum may cause a sensation of pressure in your pelvic area. Sometimes the speculum feels cold when it's first inserted.
Your doctor will then take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat scraping device called a spatula. This doesn't hurt, and you may not even feel the sample being taken.
After your test, you can go about your normal daily activities without any restrictions. Ask your doctor about when you can expect to receive your test results.
During a Pap test, a tool called a speculum holds the vaginal walls apart. A sample of cells from the cervix is collected using a soft brush and a flat scraping device called a spatula (1 and 2). The cells are placed in a bottle that contains a solution to preserve them (3). Or the cells may be smeared onto a glass slide. Later, the cells are checked under a microscope.
Results from your HPV test will come back as either positive or negative.
Depending on your test results, your doctor may recommend one of the following as a next step: