HPV (or human papillomavirus, the infection that causes cervical cancer) has recently been in the news as parents and doctors debate whether or not young people should get a vaccine protecting them against it.
Two out of three adults in their sexual lifetime will have HPV – the most common sexually transmitted disease – and most are unaware that they have the infection. There is no treatment for HPV but for the average healthy adult, the infection disappears in two years. So how do you know if you should get tested for it or not?
HPV screening may depend on your doctor
Our recent study explored how often low-risk women aged 30-65 get tested for the root cause of cervical cancer and it turns out it depends on the clinic they attend and who their doctor is. Female doctors were twice as likely to screen low-risk women for cervical cancer with the HPV test in addition to screening for cervical cancer through pap smears. Interestingly, residents and fellows were also more likely to order the test for this demographic group than more seasoned, faculty-level physicians.
However all patients should ask their doctors whether they are being tested for the HPV infection during their regular pap smear exam and be aware of how often they are being screened.
Top 5 things you need to know about checking for cervical cancer
• Regardless of sexual history, cervical cancer screening should begin at age 21.
• There are two ways to check for cervical cancer: Pap smears alone test for abnormal cells from the cervix or pap smears with HPV testing to detect high risk type.
• For women age 30-65 years with a cervix, a pap smear alone or a Pap and HPV test can be used at intervals of three years and five years respectively, assuming the results are normal
• For women age 21-29 years, pap smears alone should be used to check for cervical cancer every three years, assuming the results are normal.
• If you have had abnormal pap smears or positive HPV, check with your doctor to see what additional testing might be needed and if your interval of screening is different than above.
Most common myths about getting checked for cervical cancer
• One is needed every year
• Pap smears and HPV testing are needed when one becomes sexually active
• Getting checked is painful and expensive
• Paps and HPV testing check for other cancers or for other sexually transmitted infections
• Obamacare is keeping you from getting checked for cervical cancer
Most common myths about HPV
• You can get it from toilet seats
• Only people having multiple sexual partners get it
• You can tell who would be infected
• There is no way to prevent getting it
• Getting the HPV vaccine prevents you from ever getting HPV
Take the next steps:
- See news coverage about Dr. Ruffin’s research on HPV screening on NPR’s website.
- Read other cancer-related posts on mCancerTalk.
Mack Ruffin IV, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School and researcher at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center who researches issues related to HPV screening.
The University of Michigan Health System’s Department of Family Medicine is a nationally recognized leader in patient care, education and research.