Gynecology providers are implementing a new method of screening patients for cervical cancer. For women ages 25 and older, screening for the human papilloma virus (HPV) has replaced the traditional pap smear as the first line of screening for cervical cancer. HPV testing as a primary screening tool offers better reassurance of a low risk for cervical cancer than does the pap smear. It’s important for patients to know what HPV is, what the risks of infection are and what to expect from an HPV screening.
I’ve answered the most common patient questions below.
What is HPV?
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. In most cases, HPV is resolved by your body and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV is not naturally resolved, it can cause health problems, including cervical cancer. HPV is believed to cause more than 90 percent of cervical cancer cases.
What can I do to protect myself from HPV?
Get vaccinated. HPV vaccines are recommended for men and women ages 9-26. HPV vaccines are given in three shots over six months; it is important to get all three doses.
If you are sexually active, you can protect yourself from HPV by using condoms the right way every time you have sex and limiting your number of sexual partners.
How do I know if I’ve been exposed to HPV?
We recommend that all women over the age of 21 get screened for cervical cancer.
For women ages 21-24, pap smears are recommended every 3 years. Young, sexually active women are often exposed to the HPV virus, but most of the time their bodies resolve the virus within 1-2 years. Because the virus is so common and often resolved, we do not test for HPV in this group of women.
For women ages 25-65, HPV testing has replaced the pap smear as the recommended screening method. When you arrive for your annual well-woman visit, you’ll be tested with the primary HPV screening, which is sent to the lab for analysis. This HPV screening is similar to a pap test, and both tests are obtained in the same way.
For women under age 65 who have not been exposed to HPV, the risk of cervical cancer is low. If your high-risk HPV test is negative, your provider may recommend screening every three years instead of every year. If you have a positive HPV result, your provider may recommend additional testing or more frequent surveillance.
Do I still need to come in for an annual visit?
Absolutely! Your annual well-woman visit is an opportunity to discuss many aspects of your health with your provider. In addition to cervical cancer screening, your well-woman visit is an opportunity to address breast health, sexual health, contraception, family planning, your menstrual cycle, menopausal symptoms or any other gynecological concerns you may have.
For the most up to date information, refer to the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv.
Your OB/GYN and primary care physician are always here to answer questions. To schedule an appointment with myself or any of the Metropolitan OB/GYN staff, call 303-320-8499 or visit our website. (538)
** This blog post was written to serve as informational guidance about HPV and should not be taken as concrete medical advice, nor do the views above reflect the views of Metropolitan OB/GYN or the HealthONE organization. As with any medical questions or concerns, it’s imperative to make an appointment with your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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