The HPV Test

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QIAGEN markets the digene HPV Test, the first FDA-approved HPV test used for cervical cancer screening. The test allows doctors to asses the risk of a woman developing cervical cancer by screening for the presence or absence of 13 types of “high-risk” HPV. The digene HPV Test is regarded as the "gold standard" in HPV testing. In North America, more than 40,000,000 women in the past five years have benefited from QIAGEN's digene HPV Test during the clinical management of ASCUS cytology patients or cervical disease screening in combination with the Pap smear for women age 30 and over.


What is HPV?
The human papilloma (pronounced "pap-ah-LO-mah") virus, also called HPV, is a common virus that infects the skin and mucous membranes. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Click here to view a magnified, color-enhanced picture of an HPV virus particle.

The human papilloma (pronounced "pap-ah-LO-mah") virus, also called HPV, is a common virus that infects the skin and mucous membranes. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Click here to view a magnified, color-enhanced picture of an HPV virus particle.
The types of HPV that cause common warts, such as those found on the hands and feet, are spread through skin-to-skin contact. In addition, it is also possible to get these common types of warts after sharing towels or other objects with a person who has warts.
About 30 types of HPV are spread only through direct genital contact. These "genital" types of HPV are either: 1) "high-risk" – which means they can cause certain kinds of cancer (most commonly, cervical cancer) if the infection persists, or 2) "low-risk" – which means they are not associated with cancer, but can cause genital warts. Unless you develop one of these problems, the only way to know whether you have HPV is by being tested.

How common is "genital HPV"?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that as many as 80 percent of women – and 50 percent of men and women combined – will get a type of genital HPV at some point in their lives. However, most of those infections go away or are suppressed by the body within one to two years, without causing any problems that require treatment.

How do you get "genital HPV"?
The types of HPV that cause genital warts, abnormal cervical cells (dysplasia) and/or cervical cancer are spread from person to person through sex or intimate skin-to-skin (genital) contact. They are not spread by breathing the air, touching inanimate objects (such as a door knob) or shaking hands.

Condoms provide some protection. However, they cannot prevent infection completely, because they do not cover all areas of the genital region. It is important to know that while having more than one sexual partner increases the risk of getting HPV, it is possible to get the virus from just one person. It also is important to remember that even women who have had only one sexual partner for many years need to be screened for abnormal cells that can turn into cervical cancer. This is because HPV may remain dormant (“hidden”) in the cervical cells for months or even many years. While dormant, the virus is inactive; it won’t be detected by testing and will not spread or cause any problems. However, the infection may then “re-emerge,” perhaps due to changes in the body's immune system. It is impossible to determine exactly when or from whom you acquired an HPV infection.

Is HPV different from other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), like herpes and HIV?

HPV is often confused with other sexually transmitted infections and diseases, such as herpes or HIV. However, although it can co-exist with these and other sexually transmitted diseases, HPV is different. For more information on each type of sexually transmitted infection or disease, and what makes them similar as well as unique, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep these facts in mind:

  • Genital HPV infections are very common, affecting up to 80 percent of women by the age of 50.
  • HPV by itself is not a disease. Most infections go away or are suppressed by the body, without causing any symptoms or health effects.
  • There is no treatment for HPV itself, only for abnormal cells that may form if an infection becomes long-lasting.
  • There is currently no HPV test for men, and it is impossible to know from whom you got the infection or when.
  • Medical research suggests that after you get a particular type of HPV, you become immune to it and cannot be re-infected with that same type again.
  • Thus, there is no need for "partner tracing." What you tell your partner about your HPV test results is a personal decision.

However, although each sexually transmitted infection or disease is different, they may sometimes co-exist and have an exaggerating effect on each other. For example, women whose immune systems are weakened by HIV/AIDS are more at risk of developing cervical disease from HPV.

How do you know if you have HPV? Does HPV cause any symptoms?

Most commonly, genital types of HPV do not cause any symptoms at all. Usually, the infection goes away or is suppressed by the body before any problems develop. However, sometimes the infection persists, causing abnormal cells to form. In the case of high-risk (potentially cancer-causing) types of HPV, the only way to know you have the virus before cervical cancer develops is to be screened using both a Pap and (if you are 30 or over) the HPV test. By catching persistent infections while they are still relatively early in their development, abnormal cells can be detected and removed before they become cancerous. That is why periodic testing for HPV is so important.
Signs of cervical cancer may include:

  • unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding (especially after sexual intercourse).
  • lower back pain.
  • painful urination (particularly when there is also pain in the lower abdomen).
  • pain during sex.

Warning: These symptoms can have a number of causes. They do not necessarily mean you have cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have any of these symptoms.
In the case of a "low-risk" type of HPV, the only way you know you have it is if genital warts develop, which can then be treated. While there is a test for low-risk types of HPV (separate from the test for high-risk HPV), its routine use is not recommended by medical experts – and insurance usually will not pay for it. That is because there is nothing that can be done about low-risk HPV infections until warts develop.

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