Testing for HPV in WomenMost women diagnosed with HPV have no outward signs or symptoms. Instead, the results of an abnormal Pap test suggest that HPV is present. With a Pap smear, the healthcare provider takes a sample of cells from your cervix using a small brush or swab. These cells are then studied under a microscope for any abnormal changes. A Pap test is the primary cancer-screening tool for cervical cancer or precancerous changes in the cervix, many of which are related to HPV. However, it is not a specific test for HPV.
A specific test is available to detect human papillomavirus DNA (genetic material) in women. This test is not recommended in every situation. It is typically used in women with mild Pap test abnormalities or in women who are at least 30 years of age at the time of Pap testing. It is done at the same time as the Pap smear.
FDA-Approved TestLike the Pap test, the HPV test that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) examines cells taken from the cervix or anus and looks specifically for certain high-risk HPV types that are known to be associated with cervical cancer. This is especially helpful in women with borderline Pap test results. Women who have normal Pap test results and no HPV infection have a very low risk (0.2 percent) of developing cervical cancer. Women who have an abnormal Pap test and a positive HPV test are at a higher risk (6 to 7 percent or greater) of developing cervical cancer if not treated.
The HPV DNA test is not intended to substitute for regular Pap screening. It is also not intended for women under 30 who have normal Pap tests. Although the rate of HPV infection in this group is high, most infections are short-lived and are not associated with cervical cancer.
Women for whom a test is recommended will not notice any difference from a regular Pap test. When both a Pap smear and test for HPV are done, the healthcare provider will collect cervical cells for both tests at the same time by gently rubbing the surface of the cervix with a special collection device. The cells will then be sent to the laboratory for analysis.
The test for HPV can identify 13 of the high-risk types of HPV associated with the development of cervical cancer.