Planned Parenthood

Pap Tests & HPV Tests

Planned Parenthood Women's Health Pap and HPV Tests

Pap Tests & HPV Tests at a Glance

  • Two tests that can find signs that cervical cancer may develop
  • Early detection helps save lives


Pap tests and HPV tests are kinds of cervical cancer screening. Women get routine screening to help them avoid getting cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second-most common type of cancer among women worldwide. Cervical cancer is caused by a common sexually transmitted infection, human papilloma virus (HPV).

About one in four women will get the types of HPV that are related to cervical cancer in her lifetime. But, today, only one out of 1,000 women who contracts cancer-related HPV will develop full-blown cervical cancer. This is because many women know how to prevent cervical cancer by having regular Pap tests, regularly using condoms, and, when appropriate, getting HPV tests.

If you have questions about your risks for cervical cancer, what you can do to prevent cervical cancer, and whether you should get a Pap test or HPV test, we have answers.

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Why Do I Need Cervical Cancer Screening?

Cervical cancer screening can detect cell changes in the cervix before cancer even develops. The changes can be treated and cancer can be prevented. That is why cervical cancer screening is so important.

Cervical cancer is caused by certain, high-risk types of HPV. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. Most HPV infections are harmless and go away on their own. But certain high-risk types of genital HPV can be persistent and cause long-term infections that can lead to cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a serious concern for women. Worldwide, cervical cancer alone strikes half a million women and claims 270,000 lives each year. Far fewer women in the United States get cervical cancer than in other parts of the world because they are more likely to get Pap and HPV tests. An estimated 11,150 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in the U.S in 2007. And about 4,000 American women died of the disease.

It is not fully known why some people develop long-term HPV infection, precancerous cell changes, or cancer. High-risk types of HPV do not cause symptoms in women or men. Most people feel fine even when they have cell changes caused by HPV. That's why regular testing is recommended.

What Is a Pap Test?

A Pap test can find pre-cancerous cell changes of the cervix. Sometimes a Pap test is called a Pap smear.

Pap tests are usually part of a regular pelvic exam. During a Pap test, your health care provider inserts a metal or plastic speculum into your vagina. The speculum is opened to separate the walls of the vagina so that the cervix can be seen. The health care provider then uses a small sampler — a spatula or tiny brush — to gently collect cells from the cervix. The cells are sent to the laboratory to be tested.

Pap test

A Pap test does not detect HPV itself. A laboratory technician uses a microscope to look at a sample of cervical cells for signs of abnormal cell changes that may be caused by HPV. These cell changes may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.

Who Should Get Pap Tests?

Leading women's health authorities recommend that women start getting routine Pap tests at age 21.

Pap tests can happen about every three years. Some women may need them more frequently — your health care provider can tell you how often you should have them.

Women should continue to have Pap tests until about age 65 — or sometimes later, if they have a recent history of abnormal Pap tests.

What Is an HPV Test?

The HPV test detects the high-risk kinds of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. The test process is the same as it is for a Pap test — cell samples are taken from the cervix and sent to a lab for analysis.

Pap and HPV Tests — the Differences




How It Works

Pap Test

abnormal cell changes

A lab professional looks at a sample of cervical cells through a microscope.

HPV Test

the virus that causes the abnormal cell changes

A computerized system checks a sample of cervical cells for HPV.

Who Should Get HPV Tests?

Health care providers may recommend the HPV test

  • for women as a follow-up to a Pap test that finds abnormal cells or when Pap test results are not clear
  • for women over 30 when they have a Pap test

HPV testing is not recommended for all women because HPV is very common and usually goes away without causing any health problems.

For women age 30 or older, a test for HPV can be done at the same time as a Pap test. If both results are normal, a woman has a very low risk of developing cervical cancer. She will not need a Pap or HPV test for up to five years.

What Happens If I Have an Abnormal Pap Test Result?

Many women have abnormal Pap test results. Most often, abnormal Pap test results do not mean that you have cervical cancer.

Your health care provider's recommendation will depend on if you only had a Pap test or if you had a Pap test with an HPV test.


If you have an unclear or abnormal Pap test result, you may be advised to repeat the Pap test, have an HPV test, and/or have other tests like a colposcopy — a procedure that lets your health care provider look more closely at your cervix. 



Pap Test Result

HPV Test Result

What the Results Mean 


No high-risk HPV was found.

You are not currently at risk for cervical cancer. You should have your next Pap and HPV test in five years. 


High-risk HPV was found.

If HPV type 16 or 18 is found, you should have a colposcopy.  If HPV type 16 or 18 is not found, you should have another Pap and HPV test in 12 months.

Slightly Abnormal

No high-risk HPV was found.

There is likely nothing to worry about, but you should repeat the Pap test in 12 months to be sure. 

Slightly Abnormal

High-risk HPV was found.

You should have a colposcopy.


No high-risk HPV was found. 

You should have a colposcopy.


High-risk HPV was found. 

You should have a colposcopy. 

 If your provider finds abnormal cells during a colposcopy, you will likely need treatment. Common treatments include cryotherapy and LEEP.

What Can I Do to Prevent Cervical Cancer?

You can reduce your risk of cervical cancer by getting regular cervical cancer screenings, using condoms correctly and consistently, and talking with your health care provider to find out if you should get the HPV vaccine.

Condoms help reduce the spread of HPV by preventing some (but not all) skin-to-skin contact during sex play. In addition, studies show that consistent condom use can help keep HPV infections from becoming long-term infections. Remember that it's only certain long-term HPV infections that are linked to cancer.

If you smoke, stop. Smoking increases the chance of getting cervical cancer in women with high-risk HPV types.

Ask Questions!

Knowledge is an important part of keeping yourself healthy. Talk with your health care provider about your risk of cervical cancer. If you have questions about cervical cancer, HPV, or any other sexual health issue, write them down before your appointment. If you are nervous about asking questions, practice asking them with a friend or a family member.

Remember to ask your health care provider when you can expect HPV or Pap test results. You can request that you be called when the results are in. You can also give your health care provider a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that the results can be mailed to you.

Where Can I Get More Information About HPV and Cervical Cancer?

Staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other clinics, health departments, and private health care providers can give you a Pap test and/or an HPV test, and help you get any treatment you may need, including the HPV vaccine.

Many other resources are also available on the Web:

American Cancer Society

American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology

The HPV Test

National Cancer Institute

National Cervical Cancer Coalition




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Pap Tests & HPV Tests