What is HPV?

  • HPV is short for human papillomavirus​ - a skin virus that affects the genital areas of men and women.  HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point.

  • There are 14 high-risk types of HPV that can cause cervical, anal, throat and mouth cancers.

  • Most HPV infections, like any other viral infection, are cleared by your immune system in a relatively short time.

  • In some women, the virus is not cleared.  If HPV persists, it can cause cells in the cervix to become abnormal and, over time, the abnormal change may progress to pre-cancer and rarely to cancer.

  • Cervical cancer is preventable because screening with HPV and Pap tests identify women who need careful follow up or treatment.

How do you get HPV?

  • HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus.  Many HPV infections cause no symptoms.

  • You can develop symptoms or test positive for HPV many years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected or from whom.

Who should be tested for HPV?

  • Current guidelines recommend all women be screened for HPV plus a Pap test starting at 30 years of age. This is called co-testing. 

  • The FDA has approved one HPV test for primary HPV screening starting at age 25.  This means performing an HPV test alone without a Pap test.  A negative test is not repeated for 3 years.

  • If you you are 25 years of age or older and have a borderline Pap test (known as ASCUS), your doctor may request an HPV test to determine if you need a colposcopy

Why test for HPV?

  • Persistent HPV is the cause of cervical cancer and HPV testing increases sensitivity significantly over the Pap test.  You should ask your provider about HPV testing.

  • If your Pap and HPV tests are both negative, your risk of developing cervical cancer is extremely low.  This allows for less frequent testing - up to every 5 years.

How accurate is the HPV test?

  • The HPV test is very sensitive for detecting the presence of HPV. 

  • A positive high-risk HPV test does not necessarily mean you have abnormal cells, but women with HPV should be followed closely as long as the virus persists.

  • Combining the the HPV test with a Pap test will increase the accuracy of identifying women who may have precancerous cells, and may find abnormal cells that the Pap test has missed. 

What do the HPV test results mean?

  • HPV testing detects the 14 most important high risk strain​s that cause the majority of cervical cancers.

  • HPV testing may also report the presence of HPV types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancer.

  • Low risk HPV types are not tested for, as they are not involved in cervical cancer prevention, although low risk types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts.

So what's the next step if I have HPV?

Follow your provider's instructions.  


If it is the first time you test positive for HPV, and your Pap test is negative, then you may just need to be retested in a year with a Pap and HPV test.  

If upon retesting, the HPV is persistent, if you have a positive Pap test, or if you have HPV 16 or 18, or other risk factors or symptoms, your provider will ask you to have a colposcopy.

HPV and its link to cervical cancer

How can I prevent HPV and cervical cancer?​

  • A 3-dose vaccine that prevents the most common types of high-risk HPV is the first cancer prevention vaccine available.

  • All girls and boys 11 or 12 years old should get the recommended series of HPV vaccine. Young women can get HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21.

  • In addition, smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer two-fold, so you can reduce your risk if you stop smoking.

  • Getting regular screening with an HPV and Pap test is your best chance of preventing HPV-related cancers.  In most cases, it takes about 10 years for persistent HPV to progress to cervical cancer, so regular screening is important - even after vaccination.