HPV Symptoms and Tests
How Is HPV Infection Diagnosed? continued...
Women infected with the type of HPV that can cause cancer may first be told their Pap test results are abnormal. Pap tests are the main way doctors find cervical cancer or precancerous changes in the cervix.
To find out for sure if the changes are related to HPV, a doctor may decide to perform a DNA test of the pap sample to detect the virus in women who have an abnormal Pap smear. This tells the doctor whether the type of HPV virus you have can cause cancer. Only certain strains of HPV cause cancer. In fact, HPV types 16 and 18 account for 70% of all cervical cancers. This DNA test is often done on women who have Pap test abnormalities. It may also be done as part of a routine Pap test.
In the HPV test, a doctor takes a swab of cells from the cervix, just as for the Pap test. The cells are then analyzed in a laboratory. The test can identify 13 or 14 of the high-risk HPV types associated with cervical cancer.
This test is rarely given routinely to women under 30 because so many younger women are exposed to HPV and their bodies typically clear the infection without treatment. The DNA test could cause unnecessary worry and concern. Some experts also believe that in younger women the cervix is more susceptible to the HPV virus and that as women get older the cervix may become less susceptible.
In men, as in women, genital warts reflect HPV infection. But no specific test for the strains of HPV that cause cancer is available at this time for men.
When Is the Best Time to Test?
Combining the Pap test with the HPV test is appropriate for women aged 30 and over, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
This test helps women and their doctors learn if a woman is at high risk or low risk for developing cervical cancer. If the HPV test is positive, the doctor can then decide if more testing is needed. One test that may be ordered next is a colposcopy, in which a special magnifying device is used to examine the cervix, vagina, and vulva.
If a woman is trying to get pregnant, there's no need to have the HPV test unless her doctor orders it based on an abnormal Pap test. During the first prenatal visit, a Pap smear is taken, and if the results are suspicious of HPV infection, the doctor can order the HPV test then.