Cervical Cancer Screening: Pap test & HPV test

There are two tests to screen for cervical cancer. The first one is the Pap test or Pap smear. It looks for any unusual cells that could be precancerous and could develop into cervical cancer. The second test is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test. It identifies the virus that could cause the changes in the cells.

Pap test or Pap smear

The Pap test is recommended for women starting at 21 years of age or in three years of sexual intercourse. All women should have a regular Pap smear done. The test can easily be performed at the doctor’s office. The doctor will use an instrument inserted into the vagina to collect cells from the cervix. The cells are then sent to a laboratory to be viewed under a microscope. The cells are examined to see if any are abnormal. There are certain things to do to prepare for a Pap test. When you know the date of the test, you should not douche, have intercourse, or use any medicine that is inserted into the vagina for two days before the exam. Of course the test should not be scheduled when you are menstruating. The Pap smear only screens for cervical cancer, so if you are experiencing unusual symptoms but the test result is negative (normal), your doctor should continue investigating the cause of these symptoms. At the same time, the doctor may also examine the pelvic region looking for problems in the uterus, ovaries, and other organs. Sometimes, a pelvic exam may be performed by the doctor without doing a Pap test. Each patient should clarify with the doctor which examinations are being completed during the visit to make sure the Pap test is performed.


picture illustrating cervical cancer screening with pap testThe HPV test or HPV DNA or HPV RNA, identifies if the virus that can cause cervical cancer is present. Women over 30 years of age are encouraged to get the HPV test along with their Pap test for a more complete cervical cancer screening. The HPV test can use the same cells collected in the Pap test. So, the HPV test does not require another visit to the doctor or additional discomfort.

HPV testing is not recommended for women under 30 years of age. The reason is that the human papillomavirus is very common in women in this age group. However, this test is not effective in screening young women for HPV, because most HPV types found in these women won’t trigger health issues. Most young women will defeat HPV naturally (through their immune system) in a couple of years.
In women over 30 years old, HPV is less common. Having HPV in this age group is more likely to result in health problems in these women, who may have had the virus for many years. The HPV DNA checks if these women are at increased risk of cervical cancer and if they need be examined more often.

Tests results

Tests results usually take three weeks to return. When the doctor receives the results of the tests, he will contact the patient if there are any abnormalities.

If the HPV test is done in combination with a Pap test, the followings are the possible the results:

  • When both tests give a normal result (negative), you will not have to get another exam done for 36 months.
  • In the case of a negative (normal) result of the Pap test, and a positive (abnormal) result of the HPV test, both tests need to be repeated 6-12 months later.
  • In the worst case scenario, when both tests give positive (abnormal) results, your doctor and you will discuss about what steps to take.

Your doctor will then give advice on what to do next. Abnormalities do not mean that a person has cancer. If the tests show that there are cancerous cells in the cervical, your doctor will discuss with you about the treatment options.

Why should you get screened for cervical cancer?

The Pap test and the HPV test are two of the most effective ways to screen for cervical cancer. It does take time and a measure of discomfort to submit to the tests, but the benefits are well worth the effort. In just one day both tests can be completed, and you can enjoy a worry free year until the next check-up.

Maybe you do not know anyone who has had cervical cancer. This does not mean that the disease has disappeared: the virus (HPV) that causes this cancer remains extremely common. A regular screening can save your life.