Human Papillomavirus (HPV)


Your recent laboratory test has revealed that you tested positive for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of more than 100 viruses that cause most cellular changes on the cervix. Some low-risk types of HPV are sexually transmitted and cause wart-like growths on the genitals, but these types do not lead to cancer. More than a dozen other sexually transmitted high-risk types of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer. HPV infection is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. However, although HPV infection is very common, only a very small percentage of women with untreated HPV infections develop cervical cancer. Your HPV test results must be reviewed in conjunction with your Pap test results to determine the most appropriate follow-up plan.

Background Information

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections and is the leading cause of both cervical pre-cancerous conditions and cervical cancer. It can be transmitted via contact with just one partner, and may remain dormant for years. In younger women, the body’s immune system typically fights off the virus with no ill effects. However, when infection with high-risk types of HPV persists for a year or more, cervical cancer can result. Although a woman who carries a high-risk type of HPV often clears the virus from her body on her own without any ill effects, it is estimated that she is nearly 300 times more likely to develop cervical cancer than a woman without it.

Knowing a woman’s HPV status allows her healthcare provider to monitor her regularly and closely and intervene quickly if signs of pre-cancerous cell changes are discovered. On the other hand, if a woman is HPV-negative, the evidence shows that she is at very low risk, and can be reassured. Current cervical cancer screening guidelines recommend that women have a Pap test at least once every 3 years, beginning about 3 years after they begin to have sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21. In addition to the Pap test, an HPV test can also be ordered by your doctor. For women age 30 and older, the guidelines recommend an HPV test along with a Pap test. For women younger than 30, HPV testing is usually done as a follow up to an abnormal Pap. The test can determine whether one or more high-risk types caused the abnormal Pap test result.

Follow-up and Treatment Options

It is important to discuss treatment options with your doctor. For women age 30 and over, if your Pap test is normal but you have high risk HPV, current cervical cancer screening guidelines recommend repeating the Pap and HPV tests in 12 months. If your Pap test is abnormal and HPV test is positive for high risk types of HPV, your healthcare provider may choose to do a repeat Pap test as well as a colposcopy and biopsy for further evaluation.

Your healthcare provider may decide to perform an additional test called a colposcopy. In this procedure, an instrument similar to a microscope is inserted through the vagina and used to view the cervix directly. Your healthcare provider will be able to see the surface of the cervix clearly during the procedure and will look for any abnormal areas.

If areas of abnormal cells are seen during the colposcopy, your healthcare provider may biopsy (remove a small tissue sample) and send it to a laboratory for study under a microscope. Often, multiple areas of the cervix are biopsied during the procedure. While a Pap test is a screening test, a biopsy is a diagnostic test and will provide a definitive diagnosis.

Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider
  • Is this diagnosis going to progress into something more severe?
  • What type of follow up do you suggest and why?
  • What are the potential risks or side effects to this option?
  • When do you recommend a repeat Pap and HPV tests?
Sources for Additional Information

The content of this web page and corresponding downloadable handout is provided to you as general information and not intended as a diagnosis. Please consult with your personal physician regarding the essential details about your condition. Updated 12/2013.

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