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Pap Smear vs. HPV Test: Understanding the Difference and Importance in Cervical Cancer Screening

Dr. Pankaj Mandale 285 Views
Updated: 22 Apr 2024
Published: 22 Apr 2024


One of the most prevalent cancers among women is cervical cancer, due to which it has become a significant health concern across the globe. Nearly all the cervical cancer cases are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV), which usually spreads through sexual contact. However, with recent medical advancements, effective screening methods have been made available due to which doctors are able to prevent the disease or even detect it at an early stage.

Effective patient screening, which includes two main techniques i.e. HPV and pap smear test, helps a medical practitioner detect the disease even before it transmits to other parts of the body. Although both these tests have a common goal i.e. prevention or early detection, there is a significant difference between both. Having a better understanding about both these tests is vital for reducing the burden of cervical cancer, in turn paving the way for women's health and well-being. So, without further ado, let’s proceed and investigate the details and differences of both the tests.

HPV Test:

The HPV test is done to determine whether there is a presence of HPV virus, which is the main cause for development of genital warts, abnormal cervical cells, and even cervical cancer. There are various types of viruses, some of which are usually transmitted through skin-to-skin touching during sex. These viruses are the primary reason for STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

In an HPV test, your doctor will take a sample of cervix cells to diagnose HPV-associated infection symptoms, which can cause cervical cancer if not treated well in time. Your routine pelvic exam comprises the HPV test as well. Usually, the HPV test is done in conjunction with a pap smear test, which is also called co-testing. If both the results come out normal, then your doctor will ask you to wait for five more years until the next screening. Now that we have a fair idea of what HPV testing is all about, let’s have a look at the treatment or prevention options as well.

So, if we investigate HPV treatment per se, there is no absolute cure, which is why the virus may show its head again. However, there are certain precautions, which can be implemented. One is cervical cancer immunisation. You may wonder what exactly this involves. Under this technique, women, teens, or preteens, are administered HPV vaccination, which protects them against different HPV types.

HPV vaccination is usually recommended from 11-12 years of age, although it can be administered as early as 9 years of age. If the first dose is given before the age of 15, only 2 doses of HPV vaccination are required. This vaccination is quite safe and effective in protecting you against infection that can cause genital warts or cancer. Additionally, this vaccine is more effective when a person is not exposed to the virus, and this is the main reason it is suggested before children become sexually active.

You can also avoid getting infected by HPV by using proper protection, like condoms, every time you indulge in a sexual activity. This way, you not only protect yourself against HPV, but STDs as well, including chlamydia and gonorrhoea.

Recommended age:

HPV tests are usually recommended after you turn 25, and subsequently after every 5 years if your doctor doesn’t find anything abnormal or concerning. However, if there is any suspected risk, like you had an abnormal pap smear test results or are afflicted with HIV or have a weakened immune system, your doctor may recommend HPV tests more often.

Pap Smear Test:

A pap smear test is a cervical cancer screening test in which cells from your cervix are collected. This screening method is used for diagnosing abnormalities in the cervix, which may point towards precancerous or cancerous changes. Diagnosing cervical cancer at an earlier stage improves the chances of a cure. A pap smear test is usually conducted in combination with a pelvic examination.

Recommended age:

If you are 21 to 29 years of age, experts recommend getting a pap smear every three years. And, if you are between the ages of 30 and 65, a pap smear test can be done every three years if the test results are normal.

Key Differences:

On the face of it, an HPV and pap smear test may look similar as they both serve the same purpose of detecting or preventing cervical cancers. So, you may now wonder what exactly is the difference? Let us elaborate this for you. A pap smear test is done to check for abnormal cells in the cervix, which are the root cause of cervical cancer. On the other hand, an HPV test is done to check the presence of high-risk types of HPV, which might cause different issues like genital warts, pre-cancers and cervical cancer.

Combined screening:

Although both the tests are considered to be quite effective in detecting the presence of HPV, a combined screening is at times suggested to maximise the efficacy of cervical cancer screening. The pap smear test helps in diagnosing abnormal cell activity, while the HPV testing helps your doctor to detect the presence of cervical infection due to high-risk types of HPV.


Being one of the most prevalent cancers among women worldwide, cervical cancer screening holds great importance as it has the capability to change the outcome. And, as far as cervical cancer screenings are concerned, HPV and pap smear tests are still the best techniques (although many opt for less invasive screening tests too). Most importantly, make sure to get HPV vaccination too, as it plays a vital role in protecting you against development of genital warts and HPV-associated cancers.

Hence, the bottom line here is that whether you opt for HPV test, a co-test or simply pap smears, getting screened early goes a long way in early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. So, get yourself screened regularly, in addition to getting vaccinated, so as to keep the virus at bay.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

  1. What steps can you take to reduce the risk of cervical cancer?

    Answer:- In order to lower the risk of cervical cancer, make sure to get HPV vaccination, in addition to undergoing regular screening tests, like HPV test or pap smears.

  2. Are there any symptoms of cervical cancer? 

    Answer:- Initially, cervical cancer doesn’t cause any signs, but when it progresses, it may cause abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.

  3. Do HPV or pap smear tests cause pain?

    Answer:- Both HPV and pap smear tests don’t cause any pain, but they can cause some sort of discomfort. Some may also experience some amount of cramping or pressure during the screening test.

  4. How many doses of HPV vaccination are recommended?

    Answer:- For anyone, who is getting HPV vaccination between 15 and 26 years of age, needs to have 3 doses. And, for those receiving the shot between 9 and 15 years of age, only 2 doses are required.

  5. How often should one get screened?

    Answer:- People aged between 25 and 65 are advised to undergo HPV test every 5 years or a pap smear test every 3 years. They can also go for a co-test every 5 years.

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