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HPV Testing

By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR

HPV infections can affect genital areas, mouth, throat, head, and feet. These infections often show no signs in the early stages unless a patient develops warts but these are usually caused by the the lower risk types of HPV.

The risk with the more serious types of HPV infection is that the higher risk types can linger in the body and eventually develop into cancer in men or women. This can happen if the infection is persistent.

Both men and women can develop anal cancer although it is very rare. Men can develop penile cancer which is also very rare. This usually develops in men over the age of 60 though about 25% of cases are in men under the age of 50. For women, cervical cancer is a serious risk. Globally, there were 530,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2012.

The risk of mortality is high if the disease is not discovered early enough to receive treatment.  The mortality rate is high at 52%.

There are ways of testing for high risk HPV infections such as type 16 and 18 in the cervix of women but there are currently no reliable HPV tests for penile and anal cancers. Also, there are no specific HPV tests for oral cancers. The disease is often discovered when it has spread to the lymph nodes which is fairly late. This can affect the patient’s chances of survival.

Smear / Pap Tests

In some developed nations, women undergo screening tests at regular intervals for cervical cancer. In the smear or pap test as it is also known, a medical professional will open a female patient’s vagina with a clinical tool called a speculum. Cells will be removed from the woman’s cervix to be tested for abnormalities.

Cervical dysplasia stages and cervix cell morphology on pap smear test, Image Copyright: Alila Medical Media / Shutterstock
Cervical dysplasia stages and cervix cell morphology on pap smear test, Image Copyright: Alila Medical Media / Shutterstock

The medic performing the procedure may also look for other physical signs of abnormalities in the genital area of the patient at the same time. The sample of cells is sent for analysis at a laboratory where it is first examined for evidence of an HPV infection. If this is positive, the cells are then tested for abnormalities.

If the cells show abnormalities, the patient will be advised to return for a colposcopy for further inspection. A colposcope is an instrument which includes a microscope to allow a medical professional to more easily view the vagina, cervix, and vulvar of a patient. Once again the speculum is used to hold open the vagina of the patient and the instrument is used to look for any abnormal lesions.

The medic will sometimes apply acetic acid to the cervix to view the cells more effectively. A biopsy of the cells may be taken for further analysis. The results may take a few weeks to arrive.

If there are signs of abnormalities, the patient is invited to have regular tests to observe whether the cells disappear over time or whether the lesions continue to grow. An infection will often improve without the need for further treatment.

The patient is tested regularly to determine whether the infection is gone after abnormal lesions clear up.

Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 13, 2016

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