Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common viral infection that can affect both men and women. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and some of them can lead to health problems such as genital warts and cervical cancer. HPV testing is a way to detect the presence of the virus in the body and can be used to help diagnose and prevent these health issues.
Types of HPV
Certain types of HPV cause cervical cancer specifically types 16 and 18. These types of HPV are considered “high-risk” and are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancer cases. Other types of HPV, known as “low-risk,” can cause genital warts, but they do not typically lead to cancer. Regular cervical cancer screening, which includes HPV testing, can help detect the presence of high-risk HPV types and potentially catch cervical cancer early before it becomes more advanced.
There are two types of HPV tests: the HPV DNA test and the Pap test (also known as a Pap smear). The HPV DNA test looks for the virus’s genetic material in cervical cells, while the Pap test looks for changes in the cervical cells caused by HPV. Both tests can be used separately or as part of a cervical cancer screening.
Risks of Cervical Cancer
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women begin cervical cancer screening at age 21, regardless of their sexual history. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years. If a Pap test is performed in conjunction with an HPV test, screening can be done every five years for women between the ages of 30 and 65.
HPV Testing for Men
It’s important to note that HPV testing is not recommended for men, as there is no FDA-approved test for HPV in men. Men with HPV can pass it on to their sexual partners, but they are not typically at risk for developing health problems related to the virus. Men who have symptoms such as genital warts should consult a healthcare provider.
It’s also important to note that HPV vaccinations can help prevent cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children ages 11 and 12 receive the HPV vaccine, and it’s also recommended for teens and young adults through age 26 who have not yet received it.
It’s important to understand that an HPV test can only detect the presence of the virus, and it does not determine if a woman will develop cervical cancer. A positive HPV test result does not mean that a woman has cervical cancer and does not indicate the severity of the infection. It simply means that the woman has been exposed to the virus and that further testing is needed to determine if any abnormal cells are present in the cervix.
Positive HPV Test Results
If an HPV test is positive, women are typically recommended to have a colposcopy, a procedure where the cervix is examined more closely. During a colposcopy, a healthcare provider will use a special microscope to examine the cervix and take a small sample of cervical tissue (a biopsy) if necessary. This procedure can help determine if any abnormal cells are present that need to be removed.
In some cases, women with positive HPV test results may be monitored more closely instead of having a colposcopy. This is called “watchful waiting” or “active surveillance,” and it’s typically only recommended for women at low risk for cervical cancer. Active surveillance aims to detect cervical cancer at an early stage if it does develop. Women being monitored more closely will need follow-up tests, such as Pap tests or HPV tests, at regular intervals.
In addition to regular cervical cancer screening, women need to practice safe sex and limit the number of sexual partners they have. Consistent and correct use of condoms can also help reduce the risk of contracting HPV.
Risks of Getting Tested
It is important to note that HPV testing is not recommended for women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and whose cervix was removed as part of the surgery, assuming they do not have a history of cervical cancer. This is because cervical cancer can no longer develop in these women.
Should I Get an HPV Test?
HPV testing is an essential tool for the early detection of cervical cancer. Regular cervical cancer screening is recommended for women starting at age 21. If an HPV test is positive, women must follow up with their healthcare provider and undergo further testing, if necessary. Regular cervical cancer screenings, safe sex practices, and limiting the number of sexual partners can help protect women’s health and prevent cervical cancer. It is also essential for women to have an open conversation with their healthcare providers about their individual needs and risks and make sure that they are getting the appropriate screenings and vaccinations.