Does an HPV test from menstrual blood mean the end of the Pap smear?

key takeaways

  • Testing menstrual blood from sanitary pads may be a new, accurate way to detect high-risk HPV and prevent cervical cancer, a new study suggests.
  • While this could greatly increase the availability of HPV testing, it is unlikely to replace the Pap smear because physical exams can detect other health problems than HPV.
  • More research is needed to determine whether this is really a viable form of HPV testing.

Routine Pap smears are one of the many uncomfortable maintenance requirements for the cervix, but there may be an easier and less painful way to identify the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV).

A new study by Chinese researchers is published in the journal JAMA Network Openfound that menstrual blood from sanitary pads may be a viable and accurate alternative to HPV and cervical cancer screening.

The researchers collected 137 sanitary pads from 120 premenopausal women who had been diagnosed with high-risk HPV, which means the virus is more likely to develop cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is curable when detected early. The overall five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is about 66%, but if treatment is given while the cancer is still localized, that percentage increases significantly to 90%.

Through DNA analysis of menstrual blood, the researchers were able to effectively identify high-risk HPV in 94.2 percent of patients. This method is more accurate than cervical testing in detecting multiple strains of HPV infection.

Menstrual blood testing for HPV could be a “convenient and non-invasive method,” the researchers wrote. They add that technicians should start collecting pads from the second day of their period, as this is usually when people bleed the most.

How is HPV Diagnosed in Women and Men

increase accessibility

Tara Scott, MD, medical director of integrative medicine at Summa Health System, said HPV is usually tested during a gynecologist’s routine visit, with a ThinPrep liquid Pap smear obtained by scraping the outside of the cervix and cervical canal.

There are also home HPV tests that allow you to swab your own cervical canal and mail the swab back to the manufacturer for a lab test.

An earlier survey of screening overdue people found that 29 percent feared the stigma of gynecological exams, and 14 percent feared pain, the new study noted. While self-sampling HPV testing is an alternative that can increase participation, most existing studies are based on various sampling brushes inserted into the vagina, which can cause discomfort, the researchers said.

This new method of collecting menstrual blood could allow more people to be screened, Scott said.

“People who don’t have access to care, women who are too busy to come in, women who are physically or mentally disabled — can be screened more frequently,” she said.

Pap smears are here to stay

While the new research is critical for expanding HPV testing, Scott said it’s unlikely we’ll get rid of Pap smears anytime soon, as they have many other uses.

“HPV is the leading cause of cervical dysplasia, but there are other types of cervical cancer that are not associated with it,” she said. “Part of the Pap test is a pelvic exam — visual inspection of the vulva, vagina and cervix for abnormalities and palpation of the uterus, ovaries and pelvis. That’s still important.”

Scott noted that because of the relatively small sample size of 120 people used in this study, a larger study is needed to validate its results. Still, there is always value in finding new ways to prevent and treat cervical cancer, which will kill 4,290 people in the United States in 2021.

“Cervical cancer is deadly,” she said. “Early detection and treatment has proven very successful, so expanding the way to detect HPV is huge.”

what does this mean to you

If you have a cervix, be sure to get regular checkups every three years, or as often as your doctor recommends, to ensure early detection and treatment of high-risk HPV that can lead to cervical cancer.