Healthy Living

What You Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Testing

What You Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Testing

Key Takeaways

  • The HPV test mainly determines if a high-risk type of HPV is present.
  • HPV test is not used to diagnose genital warts caused by low-risk types of HPV.
  • If high-risk types of HPV are present, further testing, such cervical biopsy or a colposcopy may be required.

HPV is the most commonly spread sexually transmitted infection (STI). What people must know is that the HPV virus is a different virus from that of HIV and HSV (herpes). It is transmitted so often that almost everyone who participates in sexual activity will contract the virus at some time in their lives. There are numerous strands of HPV. Some types are so serious that they result in some serious health problem such as cancer, and yet there are others that may be treated within a short span of time. HPV is curable, provided that it is detected at the right time with regular treatments and medications. There is an ample amount of vaccines that are available to impede these health problems from happening. A doctor may perform an HPV test to check for a high-risk infection in women. Like pap smears, HPV testing is done on a sample of cervical cells. It checks for the DNA of HPV. There are around 150 types of the HPV virus. While some are asymptotic, some types of HPV show up in the form of visible warts in the neck, throat or genital areas. The HPV test mainly determines if a high-risk type of HPV (such as types 16, 18, 31, and 45) is present in the patient's body. These types can greatly affect women, as they increase the risk of cervical cancer by forcing changes in the cells of the cervix. While some changes may resolve on their own, some can progress into a serious health problem such as cervical cancer. Therefore, women are suggested to have pap smear tests regularly to identify any potentially dangerous conditions.

Spread easily through skin contact, any random person can get affected with HPV, but people who are sexually active have a higher risk than those who stray away from any sort of physical attraction. So, you can contract HPV without being sexually active. As common as it is, you need not feel ashamed or embarrassed if you are diagnosed with the virus. Also, don't be scared. A majority of people who have been diagnosed with HPV have been able to naturally fight off the virus with the body's defense systems. Up to 90 percent of infections are “cleared” within the first three years. Contracting HPV can almost be considered the norm of being sexually active. Although both men and women can be HPV positive, this test is only used on women to identify the high-risk types of HPV. It is not used to diagnose genital warts caused by low-risk types of HPV.

Why the HPV test is done?

An HPV test is done to:

  • Identify high-risk types of HPV in women who had a pap smear test that confirmed abnormal cervical cells. If an HPV test reveals that high-risk types of HPV are present, further testing, such cervical biopsy or a colposcopy may be required.
  • Check for HPV in women aged above 30 as part of regular monitoring.
  • Check for abnormal cells in the cervix after treatment of a high-risk HPV infection.

Getting prepared for HPV test

To cure HPV, one needs to diagnose the infection by conducting and opting for proper tests as part of the treatment. HPV tests can find any of the high-risk types of HPV that are most commonly found in cervical cancer. This HPV test is done along with the pap test by using a small soft brush to collect cervical cells that are then sent to the laboratory. A lot of precautions are advised to be followed before conducting an HPV test. For example the sufferer is cautioned to not use tampons or vaginal medicines for at least two days. Just before the test, your doctor will ask you to urinate. This will keep you comfortable during the test and also help with the exam. Typically treatment for serious diseases like cervical cancer involves surgery to remove the cancer. Some common surgeries are hysterectomies and local excision. Depending on the size of the tumor or stage of cancer, radiotherapy and chemotherapy might also be performed. Cervical cancer is treatable and curable when identified in its early stages. 

How is the HPV test done?

An HPV test can be done in a doctor's office or clinic by a gynecologist, a urologist, a nurse practitioner, a physician's assistant, an internist or a family medicine physician. For this test, you need to unclothe yourself from the pants down and lie on your back on an examination table. You will raise your feet and place them in stirrups. This will allow your doctor to see and examine your vagina and reproductive region. Your doctor will then insert a tool called a speculum into your vagina, which will gently spread open the vaginal walls, allowing the doctor to examine and test the inside of the vagina and the cervix. He or she will collect several samples of cells from the cervix using a cotton swab or a small brush. The collected samples are then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Risks associated with HPV tests

There are very little risks associated with an HPV test. However, after the procedure, you may have a small amount of vaginal bleeding. Avoid having sex until your doctor tells you it is safe to do so. Since HPV can potentially be progressive, women who have been diagnosed as HPV positive may need to be frequently tested for cervical cancer. 

Results of HPV test

HPV test results are generally available in one to two weeks. Results from the HPV test will come back as either positive or negative. A positive test result means you have a type of high-risk HPV that's linked to cervical cancer. It doesn't always indicate that you will have cervical cancer, but it's a warning sign that cervical cancer could develop later in the future. A negative test result on the other side may indicate that you don't have any of the types of HPV that cause cancer or any related disorder. Depending on these test results, the doctor may recommend further steps and follow-ups.