The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 related viruses. Some types of HPV are considered high risk because they are associated with cancer. HPV tests detect the genetic material (DNA or RNA) of the virus.
Some types of HPV can cause skin warts, while other types can cause genital warts (also called condylomata). Genital HPV infection is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV and over 14 million become newly infected each year.
Most HPV infections spread through oral, anal, or genital sex are short-lived and relatively benign. The low-risk types of HPV that cause genital warts can be diagnosed through visual inspection and, therefore, do not require testing. Some HPV tests detect the low-risk types of HPV that cause warts, but the tests are generally not recommended for that purpose.
There are at least 13 types of HPV (such as HPV-16, HPV-18, HPV-31, HPV-33, and HPV-45) that are considered high risk. They do not usually cause visible warts, but long-lasting (persistent) infections are the cause of most cases of cervical cancer and are linked to other, less common cancers, such as those of the vagina, mouth, throat (including the base of the tongue and the tonsils), penis, and anus.
High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 account for about 70% of cervical cancers in the U.S. Each year, more than 13,000 women in the U.S. develop cervical cancer and about 4,000 are expected to die from it. In addition, some studies have also shown that persistent oral infections with high-risk types of HPV are strongly associated with oral cancers, including cancer of the mouth and throat (oropharyngeal cancer). Anal cancer has also been linked to HPV types 16 and 18. These high-risk types can be detected with an HPV test. The test is primarily used to screen for cervical cancer or to identify women at risk of cervical cancer.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A sampling of cells is taken from the cervical area in females during a pelvic examination using a swab or small brush. The sample is then placed into a bottle containing a special liquid preservative. The same sample of cells can be used for both the Pap test and the HPV test.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
It is recommended that you do not douche or use tampons or vaginal creams, deodorants, or medications for 2 days before the test. Some health practitioners may request that you refrain from sex for 24 to 48 hours before the test. Reschedule the test if you are having your period (menstruating). You may be asked to empty your bladder before the examination.