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The HPV Test

Human Papillomavirus Testing

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Updated March 31, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus associated with cancer in both women and men. It is most commonly related to cervical cancer, but is also linked to oral cancer, anal cancer, and other cancer types.

HPV is a viral infection that is spread through skin to skin sexual contact -- no intercourse is needed to become infected. Fortunately, there is an HPV test available to women that can identify if you are infected with the virus.

To understand the logistics of the HPV test, it's important to understand some key facts about HPV:

  • HPV is a group of over 100 different viruses, with at least 30 strains known to affect the genitals of men and women. These 30 strains can be divided into high-risk and low-risk categories. High-risk means that the virus is more likely to cause cancer than a low-risk type.

  • Thirteen of these strains are related to cervical cancer in women. Of these thirteen strains, two strains are more commonly associated with cervical cancer development. The strains are referred to as HPV 16 and HPV 18, and are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

  • While HPV is commonly associated with cervical cancer in women, it may also have a role in the development of many other cancer types. Links have been established for oral cancer and anal cancer. Being infected with the virus also puts women at an increased risk of developing other gynecologic cancers as well.

How the HPV Test Works

The HPV test is performed along with a Pap smear and involves the same technique of taking a sample of cervical cells. Guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest that women over 30 should be offered the HPV test along with a routine Pap smear. Not all doctors routinely request HPV testing for women over 30, however, so it is important that you ask to have the test done. Don't assume that your doctor will automatically do an HPV test when he does your Pap.

If a woman under 30 has an abnormal Pap smear, then an HPV test may be ordered. In instances like this, you usually don't need to return to the doctor's office for additional testing. The same sample from your Pap smear can often be submitted for HPV screening.

HPV Test Results

Test results from an HPV test can take up to a few weeks to come back. Pap smear results take about two weeks, so it is important not to confuse the two. If you do not hear from your doctor within a month, call and ask for your results. Just because you haven't heard anything from your doctor doesn't always mean your results came back normal. There is a chance your results may have mistakenly been overlooked.

If HPV testing has reveals that you are infected with HPV, your doctor may order a colposcopy, a cervical exam that allows the doctor to view your cervix more closely. At this time, a cervical biopsy may be also be done. It is important to keep in mind that just because you are infected with HPV, it doesn't mean that you will develop cancer. The purpose of the Pap smear, HPV test, and colposcopy are to prevent cervical cancer from developing. These tests and exams allow your doctor to carefully monitor and treat women before cervical cancer even develops. This is why following your doctor's recommendations for further screening and exams is absolutely vital.

If the test shows no HPV infection, your cervical cancer risk is probably low even if your Pap smear is abnormal. Every situation is different, so please follow your doctor's recommendations for follow-up exams.

Does Insurance Cover the HPV Test?

Most insurance providers cover the HPV test. Check ahead of time with your provider to be certain. If you do not have insurance and want the test, you can expect to pay up to $200 for the test, depending on where you live and what lab your doctor uses.
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