You have probably heard the term Pap test and know that you should be getting it regularly. Pap tests are important because they allow us to detect abnormalities in the uterine cervix before they turn into cancer. Thus, Pap tests have saved millions of women’s lives for more than 70 years now.
Nevertheless, as valuable as this test has been for so many years, new technology has come to improve even further our ability to find pre-cancer or early cancer of the cervix. This novel exam is called the HPV test.
In this article you will find all the information you need to know regarding this new technique, which is becoming a routine exam in most countries.
- Cervical cancer is the second-most-common cancer affecting women worldwide. It is a type of cancer that can easily be prevented, as its cause is known: the human papillomavirus (HPV, read more here).
- Not all types of HPV are responsible for the development of cancer of the uterine cervix. Approximately 15 types of HPV are related to cancer, these are known as high-risk types or oncogenic viruses.
- While most HPV infections resolve without treatment, infections with high-risk HPV strains that persist over time can cause precancerous changes in the cervix.
- Precancerous conditions are not cancer, but if these abnormal changes are not treated, they may become cervical cancer. It may take 10 years or more for precancerous conditions to turn into cancer, but eventually this happens within a shorter time period.
- Pre-cancer lesions of the cervix do not cause any symptoms. Symptoms only appear in advanced cancer. That is why all healthy women should undergo preventive exams.
- The mainstay of cervical cancer screening for the last 70 years has been the Pap test (also called Pap smear or Test Papanicolaou). During the procedure, cells from the cervix are gently scraped away with a brush and then examined for abnormal growth, usually called cervical dysplasia, CIN (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia), or SIL (squamous intraepithelial lesions).
- More recently, newer technologies have become available to test for the cancer-causing types of HPV and determine if you may be at risk. This test is called the HPV test.
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) test detects the presence of the types of HPV virus that can lead to the development of cervical cancer.
- The HPV test is available only to women. Although men can be infected with HPV and pass the virus along to their sex partners, no HPV test yet exists to detect the virus in men.
Why test for HPV?
- The Pap test is a simple test that has saved uncountable women lives. However, it is not 100% accurate. The Pap test detects certain cervical abnormalities that will never progress to cancer; on the other hand, it may miss abnormal cells even when they are there.
- Thus, knowing whether you have a type of HPV that puts you at high risk of cervical cancer will provide valuable information on the next steps in your health care, such as follow-up monitoring, further testing, or treatment of precancerous cells.
- Recent studies have shown that HPV testing is more effective than Pap smears at detecting precancerous lesions.
- A Pap test plus an HPV test (called co-testing) is the most effective way to find pre-cancer or early cervical cancer in women 30 and older.
The HPV test is recommended if:
- You are age 30 or older. The HPV test may be done alone or in combination with a Pap smear.
- Your Pap test showed atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS). ASCUS is a common finding in a Pap test; it may be a sign of HPV infection, although many times it is just related to benign cervical polyps, a bacterial infection, or low hormone levels (menopause).
- You had a surgical removal of a precancerous lesions, usually 6 months after the treatment. This is called “test of cure”.
Although recommendations vary in different countries, all women aged 30 to 65 years old should have the HPV test every 3 to 5 years.
Routine use of the HPV test in women under age 30 is not recommended, nor is it very helpful. HPV spreads through sexual contact and is very common in young women. Most of the times, HPV infections clear on their own within a year or two. Since cervical changes that lead to cancer take several years — often 10 years or more, younger women are usually advised to follow a watchful waiting instead of undergoing treatment for cervical changes resulting from an HPV infection.
Although the HPV test is very accurate, it carries (like any other test) the risk of false-positive or false-negative results.
• False-positive. This means that the test showed a high-risk HPV when you really don’t have it. A false-positive result could lead to an unnecessary follow-up procedure, such as colposcopy or biopsy, and undue anxiety over the test results.
• False-negative. A false-negative test result means you really do have an HPV infection, but the test indicates that you don’t. This might cause a delay in appropriate follow-up tests or procedures.
How should I prepare for an HPV test?
The HPV test is usually done at the same time as the Pap test. You can take these measures to make both tests as accurate as possible:
- Avoid intercourse, douching, or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before the test.
- Try not to schedule the test during your menstrual period. The test can be done, but a better sample of cells can be collected at another time in your cycle.
- The HPV test, alone or in combination with the Pap test, is performed at the doctor’s office and takes only a few minutes.
- While you lie on your back with your knees bent, your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina.
- The speculum allows the visualisation of the cervix. Samples of the cervical cells are taken using a soft brush.
- Usually this doesn’t hurt, sometimes it may cause a mild discomfort.
- After the procedure, you can do your normal daily activities without any restrictions.
- Ask your doctor about when you can expect to receive your test results.
What do the results mean?
Results from your HPV test will come back as either positive or negative.
- Positive HPV test. This means that you have a type of high-risk HPV that is linked to cervical cancer. While most women who are infected with HPV will never develop cervical cancer, it’s a warning sign that cervical cancer could develop in the future.
- Negative HPV test. A negative test result means that you don’t have any of the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer, and you will continue with normal monitoring.
Depending on your test results, your doctor may recommend one of the following as a next step:
- Normal monitoring. If you’re over age 30, your HPV test is negative and your Pap test is normal, you will follow the generally recommended schedule (differences apply for each country).
- Colposcopy. In this follow-up procedure, your doctor uses a special magnifying lens (colposcope) to more closely examine your cervix.
- Biopsy. Done in conjunction with colposcopy, a sample of cervical cells (biopsy) is taken to be examined more closely under a microscope.
- Removal of abnormal cervical cells. To prevent abnormal cells from developing into cancerous cells, your doctor may suggest a procedure to remove the areas of tissue that contain the abnormal cells.
It is true that a visit to the gynaecologist may sound frightening. You may be too busy, and feel that you don’t have the time. You may believe that you are not at risk for cancer. While all this may be true, you should know that every sexually active woman is at risk for cervical cancer, the HPV test is a simple, painless test that takes 5 minutes to be done, and will prevent some serious issues in the long run. Have your HPV test! Five minutes of your time can save your life!
- The HPV DNA test – American Cancer Society
- Gynecological Cancers – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Cervical Cancer Screening: Pap and HPV tests – National Cervical Cancer Coalition
- Cervical Screening – National Health System UK