As there are usually no symptoms of high-risk HPV, the infection is often not diagnosed. There are no blood tests to detect HPV.
Diagnosis of HPV in women
HPV infection of the cervix is mainly diagnosed in women as a result of the cervical screening programme. A woman may be told she has HPV when she receives her cervical screening result.
If an HPV infection is present, changes in the appearance of the cells can sometimes be seen when they are looked at under a microscope during the screening process.
Testing of cervical screening samples for high-risk types of HPV is now being introduced in some areas of the country. This means that if you live in an area where it has been introduced, your cervical screening sample may be tested to see if it contains a high-risk type of HPV. This is explained in more detail in our information about cervical screening. You can also find out more at www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk
Some women who have an abnormal smear test result will attend a colposcopy clinic, where their cervix will be examined using an instrument like a microscope (called a colposcope). During the examination, the nurse or doctor can apply a solution to the cervix that makes cells infected with HPV turn white.
An HPV DNA test can sometimes be done using cells collected during a routine cervical screening test or colposcopy. This test can also be done during an anal smear – see below. The HPV DNA test looks at the genetic make-up (DNA) of the HPV within the cells and can detect which type of HPV is present. This can be useful, as it may help identify whether the HPV is a type that may cause pre-cancerous changes. HPV DNA tests aren't widely available in the UK.
Diagnosis of HPV in men
In men, high-risk HPVs don't cause symptoms and are often very difficult to diagnose.
Some people who are known to be at a high risk of having anal HPV and of developing anal cancer may be offered an anal smear. Men who have anal sex are more likely to have anal HPV and are at an increased risk of developing anal cancer. The risk for men and women with HIV is greater still, regardless of their sexual orientation.
The anal smear is very similar to a cervical smear, and involves collecting cells from the anal area using a special wipe. An HPV DNA test (see above) can also sometimes be done during an anal smear. However, anal smears are not widely available in the UK. If you are in a high-risk group and more likely to have anal HPV, you can talk to your GP or a doctor at your local sexual health clinic, about whether you should have regular anal smears.