How the HPV Test Works

Why You Need It, How Long It Takes, and How Much It Costs

Cervical smear test equipment
Cervical smear test equipment. Getty Images/TEK IMAGE/Science Photo Library

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can sometimes cause cancer in both women and men. It is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, but it is also linked to other kinds of cancer, as well as genital warts. HPV is a viral infection that is spread through skin to skin sexual contact, rather than semen or vaginal fluid—so no intercourse is needed to become infected.

Fortunately, there is an HPV test that's available to women that can identify whether they are infected with the virus.

You may be thinking: Why do I need an HPV test? How long does it take to get HPV test results? How much does an HPV test cost and will my insurance cover it? Find answers to these questions, and others, below. 

Why Your Doctor Tests for HPV

Your doctor tests for HPV because if you are infected with certain strains, you may be at higher risk for cancer. And if the cancer is caught early, there's a better chance that treatment will be successful. 

HPV is a virus that has more than 100 different strains. At least 30 strains are known to affect the genitals of men and women. These 30 strains can be divided into high-risk and low-risk categories. High-risk means that the virus is more likely to cause cancer than a low-risk type. Here are some more details about the different types of medical conditions and diseases that HPV can sometimes trigger. 

  • HPV and Cervical Cancer in Women: Thirteen HPV strains are related to cervical cancer in women. Of these thirteen strains, two strains are most commonly associated with cervical cancer development. The strains are referred to as HPV 16 and HPV 18, and they are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Another 20% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
  • HPV and Other Cancers in Men and Women: While HPV is commonly associated with cervical cancer in women, it also can play a role in the development of many other types of cancer. Links have been established between HPV and oral cancer, anal cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, and penile cancer, too. The strain HPV 16 is usually to blame for these types of cancers. 
  • HPV and Genital Warts: The HPV 6 and HPV 11 strains are usually responsible for 90 percent of genital warts.

How the HPV Test Works

The HPV test is performed along with a Pap smear (or Pap test) at a woman's in-office, gynecological exam. It involves the same technique of taking a sample of cervical cells.

Guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest that women over 30 should be offered the HPV test along with a routine Pap smear. Not all doctors routinely request HPV testing for women over 30, however, so it is important that you ask to have the test done if you want it. Don't assume that your doctor will automatically do an HPV test when he or she does your Pap smear.

If a woman under 30 has an abnormal Pap smear, then an HPV test may be ordered. In instances like this, you usually don't need to return to the doctor's office for additional testing. The same sample from your Pap smear can often be submitted for HPV screening.

How Long Does It Take to Get HPV Test Results?

The procedure itself takes just a few minutes, but HPV test results can take up to a few weeks to come back. Pap smear results take about two weeks, so it is important not to confuse the two.

If you do not hear back from your doctor within a month, call and ask for your results. Just because you haven't heard anything from your doctor doesn't always mean that your results came back normal. There is a chance that your results may have mistakenly been overlooked.

What Happens If the HPV Test is Positive?

If HPV testing has revealed that you are infected with HPV, your doctor may order a colposcopy, a cervical exam that allows the doctor to view your cervix more closely. At this time, a cervical biopsy may also be done.

It is important to keep in mind that just because you are infected with HPV, it doesn't mean that you will definitely develop cancer.

The purpose of the Pap smear, HPV test, and colposcopy are to prevent cervical cancer from developing. These tests and exams allow doctors to carefully monitor and treat women before cervical cancer even develops. This is why following your doctor's recommendations for further screening and exams is absolutely vital.

If the test shows no HPV infection, your cervical cancer risk is probably low even if your Pap smear is abnormal. Every situation is different, so listen carefully to your doctor's interpretation of the results and what it means for your health.

Does Insurance Cover the HPV Test?

Generally, yes. Most insurance providers cover the HPV test. Check ahead of time with your provider to be certain. If you do not have insurance and want an HPV test, expect to pay up to $200 for it, depending on where you live and which lab your doctor uses.


Making Sense of your Pap & HPV Test Results, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 10, 2015. Accessed 12/7/2015.