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What is Involved in Testing for HPV?

Article Details
  • Written By: Marisa O'Connor
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 21 March 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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There are several factors involved in testing for the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are many different strains of HPV, most of which are relatively harmless. Some types of this virus, however, are known to cause cervical cancer. A sample of skin cells from the cervix is analyzed to determine which type of HPV is present in order to screen for cervical cancer.

A PAP smear is a routine physical examination used to detect the presence of HPV and cervical cancer. A small sample of skin cells is taken from the cervix and then examined in a laboratory for any abnormalities. If the cells do come back abnormal, an HPV test can be conducted on the same cells. Abnormal PAP smear results are very common and rarely mean that cancer is present. The majority of abnormal results are due to inflammation or vaginal infection.

Testing for HPV means looking for specific strains of the virus that are known to cause cervical cancer. The most current cervical cancer screening is called the digene HPV test. This test uses computerized, molecular technology to identify the types of HPV present and determine whether the patient is at risk for cancer.

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Women 30 years of age and older are at the highest risk for cervical cancer. Testing for HPV is recommended with every routine PAP smear. Studies have shown that screening is significantly more accurate when the HPV test is done with the PAP test compared to when the tests are done separately.

Women in their 20s are at less risk than women in their 30s for cervical cancer. It is increasingly common for sexually active men and women in their 20s to contract an HPV infection, but these infections tend to heal themselves. When PAP smears come back irregular for women less than 30 years old, testing for HPV is recommended. Though there are cases of young women diagnosed with cancer, the risk doesn't justify regular screenings.

Testing for HPV is becoming more and more accurate with advances in technology. The digene HPV test will give a clear positive or negative result for high-risk strains of the virus. When women who are at least 20 years old come back with a positive digene HPV test, further testing is required. This additional examination is called a colposcopy, named after the large electric microscope called the colposcope. The doctor can use this to get a good look at the cervix and detect what is causing the positive test results and possibly take another sample for biopsy.

Before testing for HPV, patients are asked not to use any vaginal medications, tampons, or douches for at least 48 hours. These products can interfere with the test results. The physician will request that the patient empty her bladder right before the test begins. This is for the patient's comfort and can make the exam easier. Any concerns or questions should be addressed with the doctor before the procedure begins.

There are currently no methods for male HPV testing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to find and approve an effective method for collecting male genital skin cells to test. Testing for HPV in men may not be possible, but in October of 2009 the FDA approved the first HPV vaccination for males ages 9 to 26.

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