The HPV Test - An Overview
What is the HPV Test?
The HPV test examines a sample of cells, collected
from the cervix, to check whether the DNA of the human
papillomavirus is present. The cells are examined in
a pathology laboratory under a microscope. The HPV test
is not the same as a Pap test although the HPV test
can be carried out on the same sample that was taken
for the Pap test. At the present time, HPV testing is
only for women; there is no HPV test yet developed for
Why is the HPV test done?
Testing for HPV is done to identify high-risk HPV strains
that can lead to cancer. The HPV test screens for the
possibility of cervical cancer. It is known that at
least 2 HPV strains, 16 and 18, are precursors to cervical
cancer, so determining if HPV is present is an early-warning
sign of the possibility that cervical cancer may develop.
Not all women who have been infected with HPV-16 or
-18 will develop cervical cancer, but being infected
with these strains does increase that risk to high.
An HPV test might also be done to check whether there
are abnormal cells present after the woman has received
treatment for high risk HPV.Who needs an HPV test?
Women over the age of 30 years are advised to be routinely
tested, often at the same time as their regular Pap
test, because the changes to the cervix that lead to
cervical cancer take several years to develop, up to
10 years or more. So even if younger women are tested
and prove positive to HPV-16 or -18, it is unlikely
that the precancerous cells will have developed yet.
In many cases, HPV is cleared by the body's immune system
without any intervention; it is mainly women who have
had recurring HPV over a number of years who are at
the greatest risk of developing cervical cancer.
Because the high-risk strains of HPV don't have any
noticeable symptoms, the HPV test isn't confined only
to those women who have HPV symptoms like genital warts.
Genital warts do not lead to cancer.
What are the risks associated with HPV testing?
The risks are involved in the results – that
the results may not be an accurate assessment of the
situation. A false positive gives the result as testing
positive to the HPV strains but you actually haven't
been infected. A false negative result tells you that
you don't have the high-risk strains whereas you really
are infected. These false results can cause unnecessary
worry or lead to a delay in getting treatment. This
is why routine testing is recommended, as your next
test would probably be correct.
What is involved in having an HPV test?
The HPV test is carried out in the same way as your
regular Pap test and may be done at the same time as
the Pap test, using the same sample of cervical cells.
It can be done by your doctor, gynecologist or other
trained medical professional.
You will be asked not to use any vaginal preparations
for 48 hours or more before the test, including tampons,
deodorants or douches. For your comfort, you will be
asked to have emptied your bladder immediately prior
to the test. You will lie on your back on the examination
couch, undressed below the waist; your feet may be placed
The doctor will insert a speculum (medical
instrument) gently into your vagina to open up the vagina
for easier examination. A sample of cells is then taken
from your cervix using a swab or special brush; the
sample is then put into the collection tube for delivery
to the pathology lab to be tested for HPV.
You might feel some discomfort as the speculum is inserted
but it doesn't last very long. While it seems like a
big ask, it will be easier if you can relax –
try taking deep breathes, focus on your breathing or
think about something other than what is happening.
After the test, you might have a little vaginal discharge
or bleeding but not for long.
What do the HPV test results mean?
The HPV test is a very reliable test. If your HPV test
comes back normal, no high-risk strains of HPV were
found. If the test comes back as abnormal, don't immediately
think the worst and start to panic. This result does
NOT mean you have cancer; it simply means that some
high-risk HPV was found in your sample.
This means that
you are in the high-risk category for developing precancerous
changes to the cells of your cervix. Your doctor will
advise you, but this might mean a repeat HPV test, a
colposcopy or a cervical biopsy or other test. The next
step will be determined by the exact results of your
HPV test as well as your medical history.
The HPV test is not used to diagnose genital warts
which have no link to cervical cancer; they are caused
by different strains of HPV. The HPV test is used to
check for cervical cell changes that may indicate a
high risk of precancerous cells developing.