HPV (human papilloma virus) testing has become somewhat standard of care when doing pap smears. The ACOG (american college of obstetrics/gynecology) guidelines have recommending to women the addition of an HPV test along with their pap smear.
This test is primarily recommended for women over the age of 35 because studies have shown that this virus tends to “take hold” in tissues and stick around longer in this age group, where it may do more damage and cause cervical cancer. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen younger women with pre-cancer cells after a pap, but it’s less likely. Younger women have a much more robust immune system that can clear this virus more efficiently, making it a much more transient infection.
Things may be changing…
An Italian study on 95,000 women showed those tested for HPV alone developed fewer cancers than those who only had pap smears. They concluded that HPV testing was more sensitive than pap smear tests at picking up pre-cancerous changes to cervical cells. Currently, if both cytology (pap) tests and HPV tests are negative, women do not need a pap smear but every 3 years. Now researchers are suggesting that testing may be even less often and women would need testing every 5 years!
We may start to see HPV alone as the primary screening test for cervical cancer in the future. My concern is that women may extend their yearly check-ups to every 3-5 years. Women still need annual exams even though cervical cancer screening can be done less often.