At a glance

Why get tested?

To monitor treatment for infection with HPV, some types of which are associated with cervical cancer

When to get tested?

The role of HPV testing is currently limited as the great majority of HPV infections (genital warts) do not result in cervical cancer. A Medicare rebate for HPV testing is only available during the follow-up of women with a previously-treated high-grade abnormality found with a cervical smear test

Sample required?

A sampling of cells from the cervical area

What is being tested?

The test is done to monitor treatment for an infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that can cause skin warts and genital warts (also called condylomata) and laryngeal polyps. It has been linked to cervical, penile, and other forms of genital cancer.

How is the sample collected for testing?

As part of a cervical smear test or Pap smear (a test used mainly to detect cancer of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus or womb, or conditions that may lead to cancer). A sample of cells is taken from the cervical area during a pelvic examination, using a type of wooden 'spatula', swab, or brush.

Testing for HPV is only done after a high grade abnormality has been found and treatment commenced for HPV infection.

The Test

How is it used?

Your doctor can detect warts and other lesions by visual inspection. As part of a pelvic examination, your doctor may be able to identify some otherwise invisible warts in the genital tissue by applying acetic acid to areas of suspected infection. This process makes the infected areas whiten when they are examined by a procedure called colposcopy.

Your doctor might also take a small piece of tissue (called a biopsy) from the cervix and examine it under a microscope. The sample is then sent to the laboratory where the HPV test is performed. Generally these tests detect  the molecular material (such as DNA) of high risk strains of HPV. When either the cervical smear test or the biopsy indicates a condition that could lead to cancer in some women (called intraepithelial neoplasia), the HPV test can determine if you are infected with a strain of HPV that increases the chance that cancer would develop if you don’t receive treatment.

When is it requested?

Women and men who are sexually active with more than one partner — or whose partner has more than one sex partner — should have regular examinations for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Current national policy in Australia is that all women between the ages of 18 and 69 should have a smear test every 2 years, to screen for cancer or situations that may develop into cancer. The smear test can also often detect HPV infection.

HPV infection is very common and in most people it clears up naturally in about 8-14 months. There are a number of different types of HPV, some of which have a low risk of causing cancer and others that have a high risk. In Australia, the HPV test is used to determine if the person remains infected with HPV following treatment.

What does the test result mean?

There are over 100 different types of HPV, including some that affect the genitals

  • HPV types 6 and 11 typically cause venereal warts, and (along with types 42, 43, and 44) have a low risk of progressing to cancer.
  • HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 68, 73 and 82 have a higher risk of progressing to cancer.

While the test can be helpful in guessing the 'likelihood' that cancer will develop if you receive no treatment, there is no guarantee that the predicted risk is correct, since other factors seem to be involved in development of cancer.

Is there anything else I should know?

HPV is one of the most commonly transmitted STDs in the world. In 90% of women who have cervical HPV infection, the infection becomes undetectable within two years. A few women have persistent infection, which is a key risk factor for cervical cancer. Regular cervical smear tests can monitor this risk and provide an early warning that you might need treatment.

Since April 2007, the Australian Government has provided a vaccine against HPV, Gardasil®, for all females aged 12-13 years through the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Immunisation Program.

Common Questions

How is HPV transmitted?

Genital HPV infection is spread through sexual contact - primarily vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse. It is possible, though less likely, for the virus to be transmitted by sexual contact without intercourse. Rarely, a pregnant woman will pass HPV to her baby during vaginal delivery, resulting in laryngeal papillomatosis (warts on the voice box).

What are the symptoms of HPV infection?

Certain types of HPV cause genital warts and other lesions, but the virus usually causes no symptoms. Most people with a genital HPV infection do not know they are infected. That is why regular examinations and cervical smear tests are so important.

How is HPV infection treated?

Genital warts can be removed in a number of ways:
  • with chemicals,
  • by freezing,
  • by electrically being burned off, or
  • via surgery or lasers.

For most people, this treatment will clear the warts. If your warts return repeatedly, the doctor may try injecting them with the drug interferon. Although treatment clears the symptoms, the virus remains in your body.

Abnormal smear tests can be treated in a variety of ways, from monitoring over a period of months to see if they return to normal, to cryosurgery that freezes and destroys infected cells, or to procedures that remove problem tissue.

What will happen if I don't get treated?

Untreated genital warts can disappear, stay the same, or grow in size and number and cluster in large masses. Some types of the virus can lead to cervical or penile cancer.

How can HPV be prevented?

Recently a vaccine offering protection against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18 has become available in Australia with approval for use in females aged 9 to 26 years and males aged 9 to 15 years. The vaccine, GARDASIL®, is being offered, as part of an ongoing school-based program for girls in the first year of secondary school (the National HPV Vaccination Program).
Males are not eligible for the free vaccine.
For information on general prevention, see Safe Sex and Stay safe.

How common is HPV infection?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus, with four out of five people having it at some stage of their lives. It is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world.

Last Review Date: December 21, 2014