9 Common Questions About HPV and Pap Tests, Answered

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) It can cause genital warts and certain cancers, including cervical cancer. Getting vaccinated against HPV is a key step in preventing cervical cancer, but you should also receive regular cervical cancer screening, including the Pap test (also called a Pap smear). Here’s what you should know.


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What is the Pap test?

A Pap test screens for cervical cancer and precancerous cells, according to the American Cancer Society. This test is usually done during your gynecological check-up. Cells are scraped from your cervix and sent to a laboratory for testing. They will be checked for abnormal cells, and if you have had previous Pap tests, to see if there are any changes in your cells. When detected early, cervical cancer is easily treated, according to the National Cancer Institute.


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Could I have HPV even if my Pap test was normal?

Yes, you can have HPV when your Pap test is normal. Changes on your cervix may not show up right away, or they may never appear. HPV is so common that the American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 29 receive a Pap test without an HPV test first, and then receive the HPV test only if the Pap results are abnormal.


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What do negative HPV and Pap test results mean?

If you get a negative result on both the Pap and HPV tests, it means you are very unlikely to have HPV in your cervix, according to the CDC, and you have a very low chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years. Your doctor may recommend waiting five years before you are tested again.


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What does it mean if my HPV test and Pap test results differ?

When the results of your tests don’t match — for example, your Pap test comes back abnormal but your HPV test is negative — your doctor may complete additional testing to find out what’s going on, according to the CDC. However, if the results differ because your Pap test is normal but your HPV test is positive, it means you have HPV, but it has not affected your cervix; your immune system may clear the HPV on its own before it causes problems. Your doctor may recommend retesting in a year.


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What if both my HPV and Pap tests are positive?

If your Pap test results are abnormal and your HPV test is positive, it means that you have HPV and it has affected your cervix, according to the CDC. This doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer, but it does mean your doctor will complete further evaluations and may need to remove the abnormal cells to prevent them from worsening or developing into cancer.


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Can HPV be cured?

There isn't a cure for HPV, but there are treatments for the medical conditions caused by HPV, such as genital warts, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many times, there are no symptoms, and most people are not aware that they have HPV. Your immune system will usually clear the virus without it causing any issues.


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What else can cause an abnormal Pap test?

An abnormal result does not always mean you have HPV or precancerous or cancerous cells, according to the University of Michigan. Other reasons for an abnormal Pap test result include yeast or bacterial infections, which can be treated. For women who are postmenopausal, Pap results may be abnormal in some cases due to changes related to getting older that are not from cancer.


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What is the difference between the high-risk and low-risk types of HPV?

Low-risk types of HPV can cause warts, and high-risk types of HPV can cause cancer. Most often, however, high-risk HPV causes no health problems and goes away on its own without becoming cancer.


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Should you get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccines work best when given before a person's first sexual contact and before exposure to HPV, according to the CDC. All girls and boys age 11 or 12 should get the HPV vaccine, but it can be given as young as 9 years old and up to age 45, according to the FDA. These vaccines are highly effective in preventing cancers that are the result of HPV.