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Understanding Cervical Changes: A Health Guide for Women

  • Posted: 01/21/2010

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Finding Abnormal Cells

The Pap Test
The HPV Test
How Is the HPV Test Done?
When Is an HPV Test Useful?

The Pap Test

The Pap test can find many kinds of cell changes, but the main purpose is to detect cancer or abnormal cells that may lead to cancer.

These cell changes can almost always be treated so you don't get cervical cancer. Most changes in the cervix happen very slowly.

If the lab finds cell abnormalities, the Pap test result is called a positive test result or abnormal. If the cervical cells look healthy, the result is called a negative test result or normal.

The Pap test is not always 100 percent accurate. If one Pap test misses cell changes, they can often be found on your next test. This is why it is very important that you have regular Pap tests. You should also go back to your health care provider for care if you get an abnormal result.

The Pap Test and DES

If you were born between 1940 and 1971 and your mother was given a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen called diethylstilbestrol (DES) when she was pregnant with you, be sure to tell your doctor. Your doctor may want to take additional cells to check for a rare type of cancer.

The HPV Test

Almost all cervical cancer begins as an infection with HPV. An HPV test can detect the virus in cervical cells.

How Is the HPV Test Done?

In an HPV test a small number of cells is collected from the cervix, much as they are collected for a Pap test. Sometimes, the same cell sample that was taken for the Pap test can be used to check for HPV. A lab then looks for the presence of DNA from high-risk HPV types.

When Is an HPV Test Useful?

An HPV test can be useful in screening for cervical cancer in two ways:

  • For women of all ages, an HPV test can be useful as a follow-up to a Pap test with a result of ASC-US (see Table 1).
  • For women age 30 or older, an HPV test can be useful if it is done together with a Pap test as routine screening for cancer once every 3 years.

But if you are under age 30, getting an HPV test and a Pap test together on a regular basis is not recommended. In fact, routine HPV tests would lead to unnecessary treatment, because HPV infections are very common in women under 30 and usually go away on their own.