At a glance

Why get tested?

HPV infection is very common.  In most people, it clears up naturally in about 8-14 months. There are about one hundred different types of HPV, most of which have a low risk of causing cancer. However, there are several types that have a high cancer risk. In Australia, the HPV test is used to determine if the person has a high-risk HPV type.

From November 2017, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) test has replaced the Papanicolaou (Pap) smear, or cervical smear test, as the first line in screening for the prevention of cancer of the cervix in women. The HPV test is a more accurate screening test than the Pap smear, since the vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. With this test, most women can be safely screened for cervical cancer every five years after their first HPV test.

See the short video below for more on HPV testing and how it can help you avoid cervical cancer.


HPV testing is also used to monitor treatment for infection with HPV, some types of which are associated with cervical cancer.

When to get tested?

Women who have no abnormal vaginal symptoms and who are aged 25 to 74 are invited to participate in the screening program commencing at the end of 2017 with their next scheduled cervical screening test.

All women should see their doctor for assessment, which may include HPV testing, if they have abnormal vaginal symptoms, such as:

  • Vaginal bleeding other than normal menstrual bleeding
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Pain with or following sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding or other discharge with or following sexual intercourse
Sample required?

A sampling of cells from the cervical area

What is being tested?

The test is done to screen (or 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 proven as a causative factor for oral, anal, cervical, penile, and other forms of genital cancer.

How is the sample collected for testing?

As part of a cervical screening test (formally Pap smear). This is 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 spatula, swab, or brush. The cells are transferred to a special preservative liquid and are transported to the laboratory for HPV testing.

 

The Test

How is it used?

The cervical screening sample is then sent to the laboratory where the HPV test is performed. The test detects the DNA of high-risk strains of HPV. If high-risk HPV DNA is detected, cells collected in the cervical screening test are then examined under the microscope to look for pre-cancerous changes (called intraepithelial neoplasia) or cancer. 

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 25 and 74 should have a cervical screening test every 5 years, to screen for cancer or situations that may develop into cancer. 

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. Therefore, the presence of one of the high-risk HPV types prompts the testing lab to examine the cells collected for pre-cancerous or cancerous changes.

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 screening 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 (males from 2013) through the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Immunisation Program. The introduction of the vaccine has caused a massive drop in the numbers of vaccinated women developing precancerous changes or cancer of the cervix.

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 screening 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 cervical screening 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?

In 2007, a vaccine offering protection against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18 became 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 and boys in the first year of secondary school (the National HPV Vaccination Program).
For information on general prevention, see Safe Sex and Sexual health.

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: November 6, 2017