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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test

What is an HPV test?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD), with millions of Americans currently infected. HPV can infect both men and women. Most people with HPV don't know they have it and never get any symptoms or health problems.

There are many different types of HPV. Some types do cause health problems. HPV infections are usually grouped as low-risk or high-risk HPV.

  • Low-Risk HPV can cause warts on the anus and genital area, and sometimes the mouth. Other low-risk HPV infections can cause warts on arms, hands, feet, or chest. HPV warts do not cause serious health problems. They may go away on their own, or a health care provider may remove them in a minor in-office procedure.
  • High-Risk HPV. Most high-risk HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and will go away within a year or two. But some high-risk HPV infections can last for years. These long-lasting infections can lead to cancer. HPV is the cause of most cervical cancers. Long-lasting HPV may also cause other cancers, including those of the anus, vagina, penis, mouth, and throat.

An HPV test looks for high-risk HPV in women. Health care providers can usually diagnose low-risk HPV by visually examining the warts. So no testing is needed. While men can be infected with HPV, there is no test available for men. Most men with HPV recover from the infection without any symptoms.

Other names: genital human papillomavirus, high risk HPV, HPV DNA, HPV RNA

What is it used for?

The test is used to check for the type of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. It is often done at the same time as a pap smear, a procedure that checks for abnormal cells that can also lead to cervical cancer. When an HPV test and a pap smear are done at the same time, it's called co-testing.

Why do I need an HPV test?

You may need an HPV test if you:

  • Are a woman aged 30-65. The American Cancer Society recommends women in this age group have an HPV test with a pap smear (co-testing) every five years.
  • If you are a woman of any age that gets an abnormal result on a pap smear

HPV testing in not recommended for women younger than 30 who have had normal pap smear results. Cervical cancer is rare in this age group, but HPV infections are common. Most HPV infections in young women clear up without treatment.

What happens during an HPV test?

For an HPV test, you will lie on your back on an exam table, with your knees bent. You will rest your feet in supports called stirrups. Your health care provider will use a plastic or metal instrument called a speculum to open the vagina, so the cervix can be seen. Your provider will then use a soft brush or plastic spatula to collect cells from the cervix. If you are also getting a pap smear, your provider may use the same sample for both tests, or collect a second sample of cells.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?

You should not have the test while you are having your period. You should also avoid certain activities before testing. Starting two days before your test, you should not:

  • Use tampons
  • Use vaginal medicines or birth control foams
  • Douche
  • Have sex

Are there any risks to the test?

There are no known risks to an HPV test. You may feel some mild discomfort during the procedure. Afterward, you may have a little bleeding or other vaginal discharge.

What do the results mean?

Your results will be given as negative, also called normal, or positive, also called abnormal.

Negative/Normal. No high-risk HPV was found. Your health care provider may recommend you come back for another screening in five years, or sooner depending on your age and medical history.

Positive/Abnormal. High-risk HPV was found. It does not mean you have cancer. It means you may be at higher risk for getting cervical cancer in the future. Your health care provider may order more tests to monitor and/or diagnose your condition. These tests may include:

  • Colposcopy, a procedure in which your provider uses a special magnifying tool (colposcope) to look at the vagina and cervix
  • Cervical Biopsy, a procedure in which your provider takes a sample of tissue from the cervix to look at under a microscope
  • More frequent co-testing (HPV and pap smear)

If your results were positive, it's important to get regular or more frequent tests. It can take decades for abnormal cervical cells to turn into cancer. If found early, abnormal cells can be treated before they become cancerous. It's much easier to prevent cervical cancer than to treat it once it develops.

Is there anything else I need to know about an HPV test?

There is no treatment for HPV, but most infections clear up on their own. You can take steps to reduce your risk of getting HPV. Having sex with only one partner and having safe sex (using a condom) can lower your risk. Vaccination is even more effective.

The HPV vaccine is a safe, effective way to protect yourself from the HPV infections that commonly cause cancer. The HPV vaccine works best when it's given to someone who has never been exposed to the virus. So it's recommended to give it to people before they start sexual activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend girls and boys get vaccinated starting at age 11 or 12. Usually, a total of two or three HPV shots (vaccinations) are given, spaced a few months apart. The difference in the number of doses depends on the age of your child or young adult and the recommendations of the health care provider.

If you have questions about the HPV vaccine, talk to your child's health care provider and/or your own provider.

References

  1. Allina Health [Internet]. Minneapolis: Allina Health; HPV DNA Test [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from:
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics [Internet]. Itasca (IL): American Academy of Pediatrics; c2018. Policy Statement: HPV Vaccine Recommendations; 2012 Feb 27 [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 4 screens]. Available from:
  3. American Cancer Society [Internet]. Atlanta: American Cancer Society Inc.; c2018. HPV and HPV Testing [updated 2017 Oct 9; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 4 screens]. Available from:
  4. Cancer.net [Internet]. Alexandria (VA): American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2005–2018. HPV and Cancer; 2017 Feb [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from:
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Genital HPV Infection-Fact Sheet [updated 2017 Nov 16; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 4 screens]. Available from:
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; HPV and Men-Fact Sheet [updated 2017 Jul 14; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 4 screens]. Available from:
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  10. Merck Manual Consumer Version [Internet]. Kenilworth (NJ): Merck & Co., Inc.; c2018. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 2 screens]. Available from:
  11. National Cancer Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms: HPV [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from:
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  13. National Cancer Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Pap and HPV Testing [cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from:
  14. UF Health: University of Florida Health [Internet]. University of Florida; c2018. HPV DNA Test [updated 2018 Jun 5; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 2 screens]. Available from:
  15. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2018. Health Information: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test: How It is Done [updated 2017 Mar 20; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 5 screens]. Available from:
  16. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2018. Health Information: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test: Risks [updated 2017 Mar 20; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 7 screens]. Available from:
  17. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2018. Health Information: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test: Results [updated 2017 Mar 20; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 8 screens]. Available from:
  18. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2018. Health Information: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test: Test Overview [updated 2017 Mar 20; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 2 screens]. Available from:
  19. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2018. Health Information: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test: Why It is Done [updated 2017 Mar 20; cited 2018 Jun 5]; [about 3 screens]. Available from:

The medical information provided is for informational purposes only, and is not to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact your health care provider with questions you may have regarding medical conditions or the interpretation of test results.

In the event of a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.