HPV testing: Detect the virus that can cause cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is among the most preventable forms of cancer, and screening is an important part of early detection. That’s great news for women ages 21-65.

HPV: The cause of most cases of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer develops when cells on the cervix become abnormal then change and become cancerous.

A common virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV), is largely responsible for causing normal cells to change and become abnormal.

It can take decades for cervical cancer to develop. That's why early detection is so important. The early stages of cervical cancer usually do not come with symptoms. It is rare to see or feel symptoms until the HPV virus is advanced. Women with advanced cervical cancer may have abnormal bleeding, discharge, or pain.

The HPV infection

HPV is spread through sexual activity, specifically skin to mucus membrane contact.The HPV test can detect a higher risk for cervical cancer.

The HPV infection is very common in young women, and for most, HPV resolves on its own. That is why testing for HPV is generally not needed before age 30.

But for women ages 21-29, when a Pap test result comes back as abnormal, a doctor may decide to test for HPV.

Doctors order the HPV test for women over 30 to determine if they are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. If HPV is present, these women need to be screened more often.

Professional guidelines recommend that women between the ages 30-65 get tested with Pap and HPV together, called co-testing, as studies show that provides the best screening protection for women in this age group.

Detecting HPV

During an office visit, your doctor collects cervical cells with a simple swab of the cervix (just as they do for the Pap test). Your cells are then sent to the laboratory to determine if you test positive for the HPV virus.

Regular screenings are the best way to discover problems before they develop into cervical cancer. That way, if abnormal cells are found, they can be monitored, or if necessary, treated before cancer develops.

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When to get tested

Experts say that you should get regular Pap tests starting at age 21. Once you reach age 30, experts prefer you get a Pap test and an HPV test together to provide the best screening protection possible. After age 65, you might not need to be screened.

  Age   Recommended Screening
  Under 21   No screening
  21 - 29   Pap test every 3 years
  30 - 65   Co-testing with Pap and HPV every 5 years
  Over 65   No screening (if low cancer risk)

Talk to your doctor about screening. Your sexual history, your age, and the results of your last cervical cancer screening all help determine how often you should be tested.

Many women get HPV, but few cases will progress to cervical cancer.

Co-testing: The benefit of Pap + HPV testing together

Co-testing is cervical cancer screening that includes a Pap and an HPV test at the same time.


When co-testing, the doctor only needs to collect cells once. Conducting the two tests together on women ages 30–65 provides better detection of pre-cancer and cancer itself than Pap or HPV alone.

Treating an HPV infection

Although there is no treatment for the HPV virus, there are effective treatments for abnormal cervical cells. When HPV is detected, abnormal cervical cells are destroyed or removed. This can help prevent the cells from turning into cancer.

And although no treatment is a guarantee, your doctor can recommend regular follow-up screenings to find problems early and treat them before they turn into cervical cancer.

Next steps

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