The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of about 100 related viruses. Some types can cause skin warts while other types can cause genital warts (also called condylomata). Common in young women and men, most HPV infections that are spread through oral, anal or genital sex are short-lived and relatively benign. There are, however, several types of HPV (such as HPV-16, HPV-18, HPV-31, and HPV-45) that are considered high-risk. They do not usually cause visible warts, but persistent infections have been linked to cervical cancer as well as other less common cancers, such as of the vagina, mouth, throat, penis, and anus. The HPV DNA test detects the genetic material of the high-risk types of HPV associated with cancer. Some of the genetic tests detect the types that are low-risk and cause warts, but they are generally not recommended for that purpose.
Genital HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 million people in this country are infected with HPV and over 6 million become newly infected each year. At least 50% of sexually active women and men contract HPV at some point in their lives. HPV that cause genital warts can be diagnosed through visual inspection and therefore do not require testing. High-risk types that have been associated with cancer can be diagnosed with an HPV DNA test.
Persistent infections with certain types of HPV are now known to be the major risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV types 16 and 18 account for about 70% of cervical cancers in the U.S. Each year, more than 12,000 women in the U.S. develop cervical cancer and about 4,200 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. Anal cancer has also been linked to HPV types 16 and 18.
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 type of wooden "spatula," swab, or brush. If HPV DNA testing is to be performed, the sample is placed into a special liquid preservative. HPV tests may also be ordered on male patients; an anal swab or brush specimen is used for testing.
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 tub bathe before the test, and you should reschedule the test if you are menstruating. You may be asked to empty your bladder before the examination. Some doctors may request that you refrain from sex for 24 to 48 hours before the test.