Health Encyclopedia

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Does this test have other names?

HPV DNA test, DNA Pap, HPV co-test

What is this test?

This test checks for the human papillomavirus (HPV) around the cervix. HPVs can cause warts, including plantar warts on the bottom of the feet and genital warts. They can also cause different kinds of cancers, including cervical, throat, and anal cancers.

More than 100 types of HPVs have been identified. Relatively few carry a high cancer risk. HPV can travel from person to person during sexual contact. In fact, it's one of the most widely spread sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).  

Why do I need this test?

You may need this test to see whether you have HPV. Because long-term infection with HPV is the greatest risk factor for cervical cancer, this test is commonly used to check women for viruses that could cause this cancer. The test may be done at the same time as a Pap test, which checks for abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests that women ages 30 and older have a Pap test every five years along with an HPV test. Another reasonable option for women ages 30 to 65 is to get tested every three years with just the Pap test.

The HPV test is not recommended as a cervical cancer screening test for sexually active women in their 20s. These women are much more likely to have an HPV infection that will go away on its own, so the results of an HPV test are less likely to be useful. But the HPV test might be done if a woman in her 20s has an abnormal Pap test.

Although HPV also causes anal cancer and health care providers can check for signs of abnormal cells in the anus, testing for cancer-causing HPV in the anus is not currently common. 

What other tests might I have along with this test?

Your health care provider may do a Pap test, which involves collecting a sample to check for abnormal cells. If necessary, your provider may also check for gonorrhea and chlamydia, two other STDs.

What do my test results mean?

Many things may affect your lab test results. These include the method each lab uses to do the test. Even if your test results are different from the normal value, you may not have a problem. To learn what the results mean for you, talk with your health care provider.

Tests for cervical HPV check for DNA from several types of HPV. Typically, the test will report whether it found types of HPV that could cause cancer. A negative result means that the test didn't find HPV types that could cause cancer or found only types that carry a low risk for cancer. A positive result means the test found at least one HPV type that could cause cancer. It doesn't mean that you have cancer, although it may mean you need other tests.  

How is this test done?

This test requires a sample of cells from your cervix. To collect the sample, your doctor will put a speculum into your vagina so that he or she can reach the cervix. Your doctor will use one or more devices – shaped like a spatula, brush, or both – to collect samples of cells in the cervix.

Does this test pose any risks?

This test poses no known risks.

What might affect my test results?

The results don't seem to be affected by menstrual blood or lubricant in the vagina. Little is known about the effect of vaginal intercourse, tampons, and douching shortly before test. 

How do I get ready for this test?

Ask your doctor or nurse if you need to do anything to prepare for this test. The ACS recommends avoiding intercourse, douches, tampons, vaginal creams, and birth control foam or jelly two to three days before a Pap test. Try to schedule the test for at least five days after your menstrual period ends.