HPV Explained: From Cervical Dysplasia and Cancer to Testing For HPV

DrSugar: HPV Questions and Concerns

DrSugar is in the house! And she's answering your health-related questions.

Dear DrSugar
If I was tested last year for HPV and it was negative, and this year I am positive and only had one sexual partner between the year, can I assume it was that person? Thanks!
— Confused by HPV

First of all, I’m so glad you asked this question, since human papillomavirus (HPV) is so common. This question is the perfect springboard to discuss HPV, testing for HPV, what a positive HPV test means, and how to determine how you got it. To learn more about HPV, keep reading!

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines HPV as a very common infection that can be passed from person to person. Some types of HPV are spread through sexual contact: genital, oral, or anal sex. ACOG reports some studies suggest that at least three out of four people who have sex will get a genital HPV infection at some time in their lives. This really puts things in perspective in terms of how common this infection may really be!

There are about 40 types of HPV that can affect the genital region. Typically, there are no signs or symptoms of infection, though a few types of HPV cause genital warts. Some types cause abnormal changes of the cells of the cervix, which can lead to cancer. HPV may also be linked with cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, or penis.

Cervical cancer takes a long time to develop, but HPV can cause abnormal cell changes of the cervix, which over time can lead to precancerous cells. Most of the time, the abnormal cells go away without treatment. Thus, according to ACOG, although certain types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, very few women with HPV develop this type of cancer.

The HPV test is a DNA test that detects the presence of human papillomavirus in cells taken from the cervix. The HPV test is only available for women, and no HPV test exists yet for men. Your annual Pap test only checks for abnormal appearance and changes of cervical cells, whereas the HPV test actually tests for the virus. According to the American Cancer Society, if you are 30 years or older, you can have an HPV test along with your Pap test, and if both are negative, no testing needs to be done for three years. For women under 30, testing for HPV along with the Pap test is not routinely recommended due to how common the virus is in women under 30. Typically, if you are under 30 and your Pap test is abnormal, then an HPV test may likely be ordered to determine if you have the virus.

What is important to mention, however, is that the test only reports the presence of the type of HPV that is linked with cervical cancer. It does not test for the other types of HPV that cause genital warts.

According to the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a positive HPV test means that you have HPV on your cervix. It does not mean that you have or will get cervical cancer, but it means that you may be at higher risk to develop cervical cancer over time and thus will need repeat Pap and HPV tests to determine if the cervical cells are abnormal or if the HPV virus is still present (in some cases, it resolves and goes away!).

Now, to answer your question regarding whether the partner you had been with between negative and positive HPV tests is the person who gave it to you: it is possible but very hard to determine. Both the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that it is usually not possible to know when a person got HPV or who gave it to her. This is because HPV may not be found right away or not until many years later.

So how to prevent HPV infections? Condoms can help lower your chances of getting HPV from sexual partners, if used all the time and with appropriate application. However, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by condoms, and thus condoms may not fully protect against HPV. The only way to completely prevent giving or getting HPV is to not engage in oral, anal, or vaginal sex.

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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