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By Marie Savard, MD

Internist, author
Philadelphia, PA

Created: 10/23/2007
Last Updated: 11/21/2019

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Q: If my HPV test is positive, what happens next?

If your HPV test is positive, don't panic! Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted sexual infection in the country, and most sexually active people—men and women—will get it. Although the virus is spread sexually, its presence doesn't mean that you've been promiscuous or unfaithful. There is no way to know how you got HPV; you could have had it for years. Nor does its presence mean you will get cancer. In fact, most women have no symptoms, and the virus goes away on its own.

In some women, the virus persists for years after the initial infection, and it is these women who are at risk of eventually developing cell changes that could lead to cancer. If your HPV test is positive on two or more occasions, regardless of whether your Pap test shows cellular abnormalities, your doctor will likely want to do additional testing or even take a small piece of tissue from the cervix, called a biopsy, for further evaluation. The Pap test can miss important cell changes up to half of the time.

While there is no way to get rid of the virus itself, your doctor can eliminate the abnormal cells, essentially preventing them from becoming cancerous. If your cells are normal but you have HPV, your health care provider can monitor you so that cell changes can be caught early, before they cause any problems.