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What To Know About the Self-Collection Test for HPV

Doctor discusses HPV test results with patient

Recent FDA approval of a self-collection test for human papillomavirus or HPV may help expand cervical cancer screening options for patients unable to undergo a pelvic exam. Yet additional screenings may still be necessary for certain patients.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that affects the cells of the cervix. It’s the most common STI and nearly 13 million Americans become infected every year. It’s assumed that most sexually active people will be exposed at some point.

HPV can lead to cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, throat cancer and genital warts. There’s no treatment, which is why early vaccination before a person becomes sexually active is recommended.

“There is no formal treatment to clear an HPV infection,” said Northeast Medical Group OBGYN Jillian Dolan, MD. “Vaccination is incredibly important to help boost your immune system to fight off the virus. The longer the virus is present, the higher the likelihood that there could be abnormalities of the cervical cells and other health complications.”

Adults who did not get the HPV vaccine when they were younger can still get it up to age 45 and it covers most high-risk strains.

Screening for cervical cancer

Even with vaccination, routine screenings for cervical cancer are still important. The standard screening is a pap smear. During a pap smear a clinician uses a speculum during a pelvic exam and uses a tiny brush to collect cells which are then sent off for testing. Patients under 30 who have normal results can get a pap smear every three years, while those over 30 with normal test results can wait every five years. Those with abnormal results will need further testing and more frequent screenings.

Dr. Dolan says the self-collection test is unique in that it does not require the pelvic exam that many patients dislike. Instead, patients use a cotton swab or tiny brush to collect cells on their own to detect high-risk cells.

“In theory, the HPV virus will affect many cells of the vagina, and you only need a couple cells to get a good test,” said Dr. Dolan.

If a patient has an abnormal screening with the self-collection test, they will still need to undergo a pap smear for further evaluation. However, Dr. Dolan says if this test gets patients screened who would normally avoid the doctor, that’s a good thing.

“Screening is really the best cancer prevention that we have and the goal with screening is to prevent complications down the road,” said Dr. Dolan. “We have done a really good job with pap smears and decreasing the rater of cervical cancer and I think the more that we can do early detection, it’s really going to help everybody in the future.”