Though most human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are suppressed by the immune system, infection with some high-risk strains of HPV can cause changes in the cells of a woman’s cervix that can lead to cancer. NYU Langone doctors recommend that women be screened regularly for cervical dysplasia—abnormally developed cells in the cervix that may or may not be precancerous—and cervical cancer.
Men who have sex with other men and men infected with HIV may benefit from routine screening for anal cancer. This can include digital rectal exams and anal Pap tests.
For women, there are two tests used to screen for cancerous and precancerous conditions related to HPV infection.
The Pap test helps doctors look for changes in cervical cells, including those that indicate cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer. It is performed during a pelvic exam. During the test, your doctor inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to look at the cervix—the lower part of the uterus, or womb. Then, using a small swab or brush, the doctor gently collects a sample of cells from the cervix, which are sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Regular Pap tests are recommended for women ages 21 to 65, even if they have had the HPV vaccine. Having an abnormal Pap test result doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer.
If Pap test results are inconclusive or abnormal, your doctor may perform a test to check for the types of high-risk HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. As in the Pap test, cervical cells are rubbed from the cervix and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Sometimes, this test is performed at the same time as the Pap test. If the HPV test results are positive for high-risk HPV, a procedure called a colposcopy may be performed to look for severe cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women should have a Pap test every three years from ages 21 to 29. Women ages 30 to 65 should have both high-risk HPV and Pap tests every five years or the Pap test alone every three years. This schedule reduces the risk of detecting HPV infections that would go away on their own, while providing enough time to treat any abnormalities. Only women with no symptoms or with no cell abnormalities found during prior screening should follow this schedule.
If abnormalities are found, your NYU Langone doctor creates a screening schedule based on your diagnosis and test results.
Currently, there is no HPV test for men.
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