I'm confused. What's the difference between the HPV vaccine and the HPV test? Should I have both?
First, a few words about HPV. The initials stand for human papillomavirus, and there are more than 100 types. The ones we're worried about are spread through sexual contact, 15 of which cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine protects against two of the most common cancer-causing strains and is routinely recommended for girls 11 and 12 and for older girls and women up to age 26 who did not receive it when they were younger. It can be given to girls as young as 9. Because the vaccine can also prevent genital warts and anal and throat and mouth cancers, it is recommended for 11- and 12-year old boys and for males up to age 21 if they did not receive the vaccine when they were younger. The goal is to vaccinate girls and boys before they become sexually active; if you're infected with a strain of HPV in the vaccine already, the vaccine can't get rid of the virus, though it can still protect against strains with which you are not infected.
The HPV test looks for the presence of HPV in the cervix. Women should begin regular cervical cancer screenings at age 21. This includes all women, even those who had an HPV vaccine. In women younger than 30, the screening is done with a Pap test, in which cells are scraped from the cervix and examined under a microscope for any changes that could turn into cancer. The goal is to eliminate the cells early before they become cancerous, thus preventing the cancer. Thanks to the Pap test, the incidence of cervical cancer in this country has plummeted in the past few decades.
Women who are 30 and older should be screened with an HPV test along with the Pap test. For women younger than 30, the HPV test is only recommended if their Pap results are inconclusive. If the Pap and the HPV test are both negative, you don't need to be rescreened for another five years.