HPV tests find some types of the virus that can cause cervical cancer. Because HPV is common and often goes away on its own, it’s not always necessary to test for it.
How does HPV testing work?
An HPV test looks for some high-risk types of the human papilloma virus, including types 16 and 18, which cause most cases of cervical cancer.
An HPV test may be part of your regular checkup. During an HPV test, your doctor or nurse puts a metal or plastic speculum into your vagina. The speculum is opened to separate the walls of your vagina so that they can see your cervix. Your doctor or nurse then uses a small sampler — a tiny spatula or brush — to gently take a small number of cells from your cervix. The cells are sent to a lab to be tested.
Sometimes you'll get an HPV test at the same time as a Pap test — this is called co-testing. Your doctor or nurse might be able to use the same sample of cells for both tests. Or they might need to take 2 samples instead.
An HPV test only takes a few minutes. It shouldn't hurt, but you might feel some discomfort or pressure when your doctor or nurse opens the speculum inside you. You might also feel a light scratching when they take the cells from your cervix.
Should I get an HPV test?
How often you get tested depends on your age, medical history, and the results of your last Pap or HPV tests. In general, it’s a good idea to get an HPV test every 5 years if you’re between 25 and 65 years old. After age 65, you may not need HPV tests anymore.
You may be able to get an HPV test instead of a Pap test. Or your nurse or doctor may recommend getting both an HPV test and a Pap test at the same time (called co-testing).
You may need to get tested more often if you’ve had problems with your cervix before, have a weak immune system, or if your mother took a medicine called DES while she was pregnant with you. Your doctor or nurse will tell you which tests you need and how often you should get them.
What if my HPV test is positive?
If your HPV test comes back positive, your nurse or doctor will usually do a Pap test next — this is to see if there are cell changes on your cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. They may be able to use the same sample from your HPV test to do the Pap test, or they might need to take a new sample of cells from your cervix.
If you have a positive HPV test, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean that you have cancer — it just means that you have a type of HPV that could possibly lead to cancer in the future. You’ll probably need to get HPV and/or Pap tests more often, so your nurse or doctor can monitor your cervix to make sure you stay healthy.
Where can I get tested for HPV?
You can get tested for HPV at your doctor’s office, a community health clinic, health department, or your nearest Planned Parenthood health center.