The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease, passed through genital contact. Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6 million people become newly infected each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV has more than 100 types, of which at least 40 can infect the female genital tract. Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it, as the condition rarely causes symptoms or health problems. In many cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. The odds that a sexually active woman will be infected at least once in her lifetime with HPV are 80 percent.
HPV can cause normal cells to turn abnormal. In cases when the body does not fight off HPV, the infection can cause visible changes in the form of genital warts or cancer. HPV causes 99 percent of cervical cancers and cervical dysplasias. Regular gynecological checkups, including pelvic exams and Pap tests, will identify any abnormal changes to the cervix as early as possible.
Some doctors offer commercially available tests, like the hybrid capture 2 test, to look for HPV. The hybrid capture 2 test detects 13 intermediate- and high-risk types of HPV. It is performed by collecting a sample of cells from the cervix or vagina with a brush similar to that used in taking a Pap test. Generally, the doctor would advise a colposcopy for anyone who has an atypical Pap test and a positive HPV test.
The hybrid capture test generally is not done in women under the age of 30 unless they have first had an atypical Pap test. This is because young, sexually active women with multiple partners will frequently have positive HPV tests. However, 90 percent of these women will clear the infection on their own. It’s estimated that women over age 30 are more likely to be in stable relationships and less likely to have a positive HPV test. If the test is positive, it is more likely to indicate a persistent infection.