HPV tests detect the strains of human papillomavirus that put you at risk of developing cervical cancer. They’re often performed as part of a routine Pap smear. A positive result doesn’t mean you have cancer. Instead, it alerts your healthcare provider to monitor you closely so they catch and treat cervical cancer early, when it’s curable.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that you can catch or spread regardless of sex or gender. It’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. It’s also a common and complicated virus.
For example, there are over 100 strains of HPV. They’re responsible for nuisance growths, like warts on your hands, feet and face. About 30 strains can affect your genitals. Some harmless strains cause genital warts. Of all the strains of HPV, only a few “high-risk” strains cause cervical cancer. HPV tests check for these strains. These include the most common cancer-causing types, HPV 16 and HPV 18.
Healthy bodies can clear most HPV infections within a few years. Still, over time, high-risk strains can cause precancerous changes (cervical dysplasia) that eventually become cervical cancer. Almost all cases of cervical cancer arise from high-risk HPV infections. This is why screening for high-risk HPV using an HPV test is essential.
Currently, HPV tests can only detect HPV if you have a cervix. So, they’re only for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) with an intact cervix. There isn’t an HPV test for people assigned male at birth (AMAB).
You may need an HPV test if:
If your HPV test results are normal, you should retest every five years. You may need more frequent screenings if you’ve tested positive for HPV in the past or if you have a condition that weakens your immune system, like HIV. A weakened immune system may be unable to fight infections (like HPV) as effectively.
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Many people think of an HPV test as a procedure in a gynecologist’s office, but it’s a lab test. A healthcare provider called a pathologist examines a sample of cells or tissue from your cervix for HPV DNA. They check to see if HPV is present and (if so) what type it is.
Procedures that allow healthcare providers to collect the sample include:
Many people are surprised to learn that standard STI tests don’t test for HPV. The most common procedure that collects a sample for an HPV test is a Pap smear.
Usually, you’ll follow the same guidelines you’d use to prepare for a Pap. You want to avoid doing things that risk interfering with the accuracy of your test results. To prepare:
You may need to take additional preparatory steps if your provider folds an HPV test into a biopsy. They’ll advise you on what to do.
The procedure is usually the same as a Pap. You’ll lie on your back on an exam table with your legs open and in stirrups. Your healthcare provider will:
There may be additional steps if you’re having a colposcopy or a biopsy, but the big steps are the same: a healthcare provider views your cervix and removes cells or tissue.
The actual test happens later when a pathologist examines the sample for HPV DNA in the lab.
Your results will be either positive or negative. Your results will determine your next steps.
A positive HPV test means you have one of the strains of HPV that increases your risk of developing cervical cancer. So, testing positive for HPV is the same as testing positive for “high-risk” HPV.
This test result doesn’t mean you already have cervical cancer. It’s all about risk. You may have a high-risk strain and never develop cervical cancer. Your body may fight off the infection. Or HPV may cause healthy cells to transform into cancer.
Either way, a positive result tells your provider how often to test you and check for abnormal tissue. They can surgically remove tissue if they notice precancerous cell changes. This can prevent you from developing cervical cancer.
Next steps depend on your unique case. For example, your provider may recommend that you:
A negative HPV test means you don’t have a high-risk strain of HPV. Sometimes, this may mean you won’t need another HPV test for another five years. If you haven’t already done so, it may be a good idea to get the HPV vaccine. This series of shots can protect you from most high-risk strains of HPV (if you haven’t already been exposed).
Yes. This is why it’s a good idea to have regular HPV tests. You may test positive, return for a retest a few years later, and test negative. This means that your body has successfully fought off the infection. Or you may test negative, return for a retest five years later, and test positive after exposure to the virus.
HPV is incredibly common. It’s important to keep tabs on your status to remain cancer-free.
No. Most routine STI screenings test blood or fluids for common STIs. HPV isn’t included in these screenings because the test requires examining the DNA of cells taken directly from your cervix.
The only way to know you have HPV is from an HPV test or a Pap/HPV co-test.
There aren’t any HPV tests for cisgender men. HPV-associated cancers that can affect people assigned male at birth (AMAB), like penile cancer and anal cancer, are much less common than cervical cancer. Still, people AMAB can transmit harmless and high-risk strains of HPV to partners of either sex.
Some providers offer anal Pap smears that can detect abnormal cells that may be signs of anal cancer or precancerous changes. If you think you may be at risk, talk to your provider about getting tested.
Warts on any body part, including your penis and scrotum, are a sign of HPV. Currently, there aren’t any FDA-approved HPV tests that can check for HPV on any body part other than the cervix.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
HPV tests are key to detecting cancer before healthy cervical cells change to cancerous ones. If you have a cervix and are between the ages of 30 and 65, it’s essential to get regular Pap smears, HPV tests or co-tests. Your provider can advise you on the tests you need.
Remember, testing positive for HPV isn’t something to be ashamed of. Many people have it at one point or another. But not getting screened regularly can put your health at risk. Make HPV testing a part of your routine care and wellness plan.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/09/2023.
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