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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a series of viruses that can cause genital warts, abnormal cells, and certain types of cancer. It’s passed through skin-to-skin or genital contact.

HPV is very common — around 80% of sexually active people will have HPV at some point, though most cases will clear on their own. Most people who get HPV are in their late teens and early 20s, but anyone at any age who’s sexually active may contract HPV.

Several strains of the virus can be responsible for serious complications, like cancer.

An HPV test is done to see if you have the strains of HPV that increase your risk of cervical cancer. Knowing the answer means you’re better prepared to make health decisions, like whether to undergo treatment or to wait it out and see if it resolves.

Certain people should test for HPV, which can be done in a doctor’s office. You can also purchase at-home HPV test kits.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about HPV tests.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), with around 43 million infections annually. There are more than 100 types of HPV, and they often don’t cause any specific symptoms or health problems. But some are more likely to cause complications than others. Therefore, doctors categorize HPV into low risk and high risk.

Low risk HPV types don’t cause cervical cancer, and they’re treatable. They may also be called wart-causing HPV since this is one of the main symptoms.

Low risk HPV symptoms may include:

  • warts on the genitals or anus
  • irritation
  • itching
  • pain
  • bleeding

High risk HPV types can cause abnormal cells on the cervix, which if untreated can develop into cervical cancer. There are 13 HPV types that can cause cervical cancer, and some can cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, head, and neck. When HPV remains in the body, there’s an increased risk of cervical cancer.

High risk HPV may cause no initial symptoms. But if the virus triggers cancer, symptoms may include:

  • pelvic pain
  • pain during sex
  • vaginal discharge
  • abnormal bleeding
  • weight loss
  • urinary problems like blood in the urine

While HPV tests are important, doctors primarily recommend that HPV screening begins around age 25 or 30.

HPV is very common in this age group, but most infections go away on their own. Regular testing might not always provide useful results.

Instead, women 21 to 65 should get screened for cervical cancer every 3 years. Meanwhile, women aged 30 to 65 years old should get screened and tested for HPV every 5 years.

People over the age of 21 who have a vagina should get regular Pap tests (Pap smears). A Pap test doesn’t detect HPV, but it can show one significant symptom of the infection: abnormal cervical cells.

An abnormal Pap test result means that some cervical cells have changed and appear different from normal cells. Abnormal cells may include cervical dysplasia (precancer) or carcinoma in situ. But it usually doesn’t mean you have cancer and can be because of:

If results come back “abnormal,” then your doctor can decide if an HPV test is needed. The initial HPV screening test is dependent on age. For those between the ages of 21 to 29, cytology (the examination of cells from the body under a microscope) is the first choice.

People between the age of 30 to 65 who have a vagina have three options for screening:

  • a cytology test
  • an HPV test
  • co-testing (cytology and HPV testing together)

If the results of the screenings come back normal, a person should have the test repeated in 5 years.

HPV is very common and the vast majority of the virus is cleared by the body. But this doesn’t happen for all people, and it can remain in the body and cause cellular changes.

If left unchecked, HPV can start to interfere with normal cells and how the immune system deals with them. An HPV test can determine the presence of an HPV infection long before the virus has the opportunity to cause any damage.

Is there an HPV test for men?

Currently, there’s no HPV test for people who have a penis. But if they have an HPV infection, the virus can unknowingly be transmitted.

Most people with a penis don’t develop symptoms of HPV. Also, many HPV infections typically go away on their own before ever causing symptoms.

HPV infections usually go away by themselves, but they can cause penile and anal cancers if they don’t.

Some doctors may offer anal Pap tests for people who have a penis, but these are generally only done for HIV-positive people who have anal sex.

For people with a penis, HPV can also cause oropharyngeal cancers. 70% of cancers found in the oropharyngeal tissues are caused by HPV.

For an HPV test, a healthcare professional will need to collect a sample of cells from your cervix. A pelvic exam is necessary for this.

The steps of an HPV test include:

  • You’ll undress from the waist down or change into a hospital gown.
  • You’ll lie on an exam table and place your heels in footrests.
  • Your doctor will place a speculum into the vagina. A speculum helps separate the walls of the vagina so the cervix can be found.
  • They’ll use a brush or a flat spatula to collect cell samples from the surface of your cervix or the vaginal canal.

These cell samples are then sent to a lab, where they’re checked for the presence of HPV.

What about an at-home testing kit?

At-home HPV testing kits are available, but they’re relatively new. In fact, they don’t detect all strains of the virus — they only look for specific ones, like the ones linked to cancer.

Still, at-home HPV testing kits may provide private, discreet testing that you can do at your convenience. These kits can be purchased online, starting at under $50. But at-home HPV testing kits are not FDA-approved.

You can buy an at-home HPV testing kit from these places:

When you have a kit, you’ll follow the instructions for collecting a sample. You can then package the sample and ship it off to the lab. How quickly the results come back varies from a couple of days to 3 weeks.

If your test shows you’re HPV positive, you’ll need a follow-up test with a doctor to confirm the results. Some services advise you of the next steps and provide a personalized, detailed report of your results that you can give to your primary doctor.

Why someone may decline treatment

If left untreated, most HPV is likely to clear up on its own.

Most people don’t need treatment because it’s safe for them to be observed for a short period to allow their immune system to clear the virus. Nine in 10 infections are not detectable in 1 to 2 years. For those who can’t clear the virus or have a high risk strain, treatment may be warranted sooner.

Instead, during this time, you and your doctor will carefully watch for any changes to your cells or unusual symptoms that might suggest you’re showing early signs of HPV-related cancers. Doctors call this active surveillance or watchful waiting.

By keeping an eye out for changes, you can swiftly take action if an issue arises. You can also avoid costs and procedures that might ultimately be unnecessary.

HPV tests aren’t perfect. From time to time, people get false positives when they don’t have HPV. Others sometimes get false negatives when they have an infection.

While the chances of this are low, they’re not zero. With incorrect information, you may take treatment steps that aren’t necessary. You may also experience anxiety and worry.

Keep in mind

  • the virus can clear on its own
  • no specific HPV treatment exists to get rid of the virus, though HPV complications (like warts, precancerous cells, or cancer) can be treated
  • symptoms sometimes take years to appear
  • HPV is very common and isn’t a reflection of someone’s sexual choices or lifestyle

In short, you have time to figure out the steps you want to take, so weigh your options well.

At some clinics, the cost of an HPV test can be as low as $30. Cervical cancer screening as part of a wellness exam is also covered by the vast majority of private and government insurance. Some STI screening may also be covered as part of a wellness exam.

But the doctor may also charge you the cost of a clinic or office visit. That will make your overall bill higher.

If you elect to have a Pap test at the same time, you may have that additional cost. What’s more, each separate STI test you elect to have could add to your total.

Insurance often covers an HPV test conducted in a doctor’s office, but very few cover the cost of an at-home test. Call your insurance company before your visit if you have questions about what your plan will or won’t cover.

If you don’t have health insurance, you can call local clinics or doctors and request prices. This way, you can find an office that fits your budget and provides the services you need.

Once the test results are back, you may need to consider what comes next.

You have a negative test

You don’t need to do anything else. Your doctor will tell you when you should have your next screening in 3-5 years.

You have a positive test but cervical cells are normal

Your doctor may want to do a follow-up test to determine if you have a high risk strain of the virus. But some doctors may choose not to act on the positive result yet.

In the case that this is your first high risk HPV positive, cytology-normal result, they may want to do a follow-up screening in a year to see if the result has changed and if your cervical cells are impacted.

In short, you might enter a period of watchful waiting.

You have a positive test and cervical cells are abnormal

Your doctor may want to take a biopsy of your cervix. In this procedure, they’ll take a sample of cells from the cervix to study them more closely under a microscope.

They may also suggest a colposcopy. In this procedure, they’ll use a magnifying lens to take a closer look at the cervix.

Depending on these results, your doctor may suggest removing areas of the cervix that have abnormal cells. This can be done under general anesthetic with a scalpel or with LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure). LEEP only requires a local anesthetic and uses a thin wire loop to remove abnormal cells with an electrical current.

Doctors can also destroy abnormal cells by freezing or with lasers.

Are at-home HPV tests accurate?

Yes, most popular at-home HPV tests are at least 99 percent accurate, and some are 99.9 percent accurate.

But HPV tests are typically lab-developed and aren’t subject to the same regulations required for those used in clinics and hospitals.

These tests also don’t test for all HPV types.

Are HPV tests and Pap tests the same?

No, they’re not the same. A Pap test doesn’t look for the HPV virus. Rather it takes a cell sample from the cervix to look for abnormalities. An HPV test looks for high risk HPV (the molecular presence of HPV).

You can test positive for HPV and have a normal Pap test. Cervical changes are often caused by HPV, but having HPV doesn’t always lead to abnormal Pap tests.

How can I protect myself from getting HPV?

The safest way to avoid all STIs is to abstain from sex and all forms of sexual contact. The next best way is to use condoms and other barrier methods when you have sex and to get regular Pap smear and HPV screenings, although this doesn’t completely limit your chances of contracting HPV.

With this in mind, HPV is an extremely common STI and there’s no shame in testing positive.

Is there a vaccine for HPV?

Yes. Gardasil 9 is an HPV vaccine that protects against nine types of HPV that can lead to cancer and genital warts. The vaccine is most effective before someone becomes sexually active. The HPV vaccine is one of only two vaccines available on the market that can prevent cancer.

The HPV vaccine is not only effective at decreasing risks of cervical cancer but also any HPV-meditated cancer (this includes anal, oropharyngeal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and some non-cancers).

The Centers for Disease Controls (CDC) recommends that everyone receive two vaccine shots at around age 11. If you’re between 15 to 26, you’ll need three shots. If you’re above 26, there may be some benefit in getting the vaccine.

HPV is a common type of sexually transmitted infection. In fact, most sexually active people will have some strain of the virus at some point in their lives.

Some strains of HPV are linked to serious conditions like cancer of the cervix, anus, and mouth. That’s why testing for HPV is encouraged in females throughout their adult lives.

An HPV test may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. It could even save your life.

Talk with a doctor if you’re interested in having a screening. You can walk through your options for testing and what happens when the results come back.