Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(10):2801

See related article on HPV testing.

What is human papillomavirus?

Human papillomavirus (also called HPV) causes a common infection that one person can give to another person during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some types of HPV cause genital warts. Other types of HPV are connected with cancer of the cervix.

You may not know that your cervix is infected with HPV until a Pap test shows abnormal cells. When you have a Pap test (or “smear”), the doctor scrapes some cells from your cervix and looks at them under a microscope.

Who should have a test for HPV?

An abnormal Pap test doesn't mean that you have a disease of the cervix. But when your Pap test isn't normal, your doctor may want you to get a test for HPV.

The doctor may use the HPV test results to help decide if you should have a colposcopy exam. (A colposcope is a special magnifying lens that is used to look at your cervix.) Or your doctor may want you to have Pap tests every few months, or even some other tests.

How does the doctor test for HPV?

The doctor rubs a small swab against your cervix and puts the swab in a tube of special liquid. This tube goes to a lab. If the lab finds HPV in the liquid, your doctor will know what HPV type you have.

What do the test results mean?

If the test shows that you don't have HPV infection, you probably don't have a precancerous change on your cervix. A precancerous change is a cell change that might lead to cancer (but it might not). Your doctor may want you to get another Pap test in four to six months, just to keep watching for a problem.

If the HPV test shows that you do have HPV on your cervix, your doctor may want you to have a colposcopic exam. Many women with HPV infection have an abnormal colposcopic exam.

If you do have HPV infection, your doctor may want you to have a biopsy. The doctor will cut a small bit of tissue from your cervix and check it for signs of cancer.

HPV is an infection that may last for a long time. If you have it, you'll always need to have regular and frequent Pap tests, to keep watching for signs of cancer. Your doctor may want you to have Pap tests every 4 to 6 months to check the status of the HPV infection.

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