TIME medicine

Tylenol and Panadol Prove No Better Than Placebo at Helping Back Pain

Paracetamol Reportedly Not Effective Drug For Back Pain
Paracetamol tablets sit on a table on July 24, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. In a new study published in the prestigious medical journal, 'The Lancet' the most common pain reliever for back pain, paracetamol, does not work any better than a placebo. Scott Barbour—Getty Images

Acetaminophen isn't curing your aches after all

Two-thirds of adults experience back pain sometime during their lives, and most take acetaminophen, found in brands like Tylenol and Panadol, for relief. But new research has found that those medicines are no more helpful than swallowing a sugar pill.

A study published this week in a medical journal called The Lancet split 1,643 people with acute low-back pain into three groups, each given two boxes. One group received two boxes of 500-miligram acetaminophen tablets, with instructions to use the second box “as needed'; the second group got a box of acetaminophen and an as-needed box of placebos; and the third group received two boxes of placebos. Researchers told the participants to take six tablets per day from the regular box and up to two from the as-needed box.

Over the course of three months, the researchers found no difference among the three groups. Subjects showed no variation in terms of pain, recovery time, function, disability, symptom change, sleep or quality of life. About 75% of the participants were happy with their results, whether or not they had received the placebos.

TIME Drugs

FDA Approves New Pain Pill Designed To Be Hard to Abuse

The FDA has been under growing pressure to fight the national epidemic of prescription opioid abuse

+ READ ARTICLE

The Food and Drug Administration approved on Wednesday a new pain pill that was created to discourage abuse, the Associated Press reports.

The new pill, Targiniq ER, combines oxycodone, a potentially addictive opioid used in many pain medications, with naloxone, often used to trim the effects of opioids. The naloxone isn’t activated if the pill is swallowed as normal. If a would-be drug abuser crushes the pill to snort or inject it, however, the naloxone activates. That can potentially make Targiniq ER less attractive to abusers.

“Targiniq ER has properties that are expected to deter, but not totally prevent, abuse of the drug by snorting and injection,” FDA said in a statement.

TIME Infectious Disease

There’s a Vaccine Against Cancer, But People Aren’t Using It

The only vaccine to protect against cancer, the HPV shot, isn't being used by young people who could benefit most

In a new report on immunization rates among young people, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports relatively low numbers of adolescents getting the HPV vaccine, the only vaccine that can protect against cancers — in the cervix, anus and mouth — caused by the human papillomavirus virus.

The new data, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, shows that only about one-third of adolescent girls between the ages 13 and 17 got all three doses of the HPV vaccine, which the CDC says is about the same as last year. The shot is recommended to protect adolescents before they become sexually active. Only about 57% of adolescent girls and 35% of adolescent boys for whom the shot is recommended received one or more doses.

The vaccine continues to face challenges from parents concerned that it would promote sexual activity among pre-teens and adolescents, despite data showing that immunized teens aren’t more promiscuous. The CDC data also shows that doctors can play a critical role in discussing the shot with parents and improving vaccination rates. Among parents whose daughters were vaccinated against HPV, 74% said their doctors recommended the vaccine. But the data also showed that among parents who did not vaccinate their girls, nearly half were never told by their doctor that they should consider it. The effect was even greater among boys, where only 26% of parents who did vaccinate their son received any advice from their doctor about it.

To boost vaccination rates, some researchers are investigating whether fewer doses of the vaccine could be effective, and so far those studies look promising.

TIME Stress

Watching TV to Relieve Stress Can Make You Feel Like a Failure

Television set
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Losing yourself to the small screen may seem like a good way to relieve stress, but it may only make things worse

It’s almost a reflex — after a tough day, you turn on the TV, or binge-watch your favorite show on Netflix. Getting lost in other people’s troubles, or laughing your way through a sitcom, is a good way to forgot your own worries, right? Turns out that people who rely on TV or video games to relax actually end up feeling like failures afterwards.

Some research has shown that using media can make you more relaxed, since it provides a momentary escape from whatever stresses are eating away at us, but researchers found that particularly busy and fatigued people actually felt guilty about spending so much time in front of the TV. In their study, published in the Journal of Communication, the scientists surveyed 471 people about their previous day, how they felt after work, and what media they turned to at the end of the day.

People who felt especially wiped out saw their media time as a form of procrastination, and felt they were avoiding other important things on their to-do lists. These participants were likely to describe “giving in” to media use, and that feeling prevented them from benefiting from the down time and relaxing. “We are starting to look at media use as a cause of depletion. In times of smartphones and mobile Internet, the ubiquitous availability of content and communication often seems to be a burden and a stressor rather than a recovery resource,” study author Leonard Reinecke of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany said in a statement.

It seems, however, that the content of what people watch on TV can alleviate some of this guilty pleasure perception. Other studies have shown that intellectually stimulating media content (like a History Channel segment or a documentary) can positively impact people’s emotional states, so the study authors believe that watching “low-brow” forms of entertainment (we’re guessing reality TV qualifies here) are more likely to make people feel guilty about using it as a stress-reliever.

The researchers acknowledge that their test set-up can’t prove that watching TV will make you feel worse about yourself; there are certainly other variables that could impact how people feel about their media consumption. If people weren’t satisfied with what they watched, for example, they might have been more likely to feel it was a waste of their time and not as stress-relieving as it could have been. If TV seems too hit-or-miss, there’s always exercise and meditation to help you forget your day.

TIME

5 Ways to Beat Stress-Induced Weight Gain

I think we can all agree that stress is bad. Excess stress can cause headaches, muscle tension, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, depression, and now new research shows it may also wreak havoc on metabolism.

We’ve known for some time that stress is connected to weight gain, because a high level of the stress hormone cortisol has been shown to up appetite, drive cravings for “junk” food, and make it oh so much easier to accumulate belly fat. But now, an Ohio State study shows that stress may also result in burning fewer calories—yikes!

RELATED: 25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

In the study, researchers questioned women about stress they had encountered the previous day. The ladies were then fed a meal containing a very generous 930 calories and 60 grams of fat. After eating, scientists measured the womens’ metabolic rates and took blood samples. In the seven hours after eating the mondo meal, those who had reported being stressed out within the previous 24 hours burned less of the fat they consumed, and had higher levels of insulin, a hormone that contributes to fat storage. They also torched 104 fewer calories. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough of a difference to account for a weight gain of almost 11 pounds in one year’s time.

I understand that reports like this can be discouraging, but knowing this info actually offers a huge advantage. Even if you can’t fix the causes of your stress, you can make small changes to offset the effects. Here are five daily tweaks to help you beat stress-induced weight gain.

Choose your fats wisely

If stress causes your body to burn less of the fat you eat (making it more likely to be stored) aim to include some healthy fat in your meal—but avoid “doubling up.” For example, many clients tell me they order a healthy salad for lunch, but the toppings include both olive oil and avocado. Or they might snack on nuts alongside popcorn that’s been cooked in oil. I’m not saying you should eat low-fat meals: fat is important for satiety and it’s one of your body’s key building blocks. But to keep it in balance, choose only one high-fat item per meal. For example, if you want avocado on your salad, dress your greens with balsamic vinegar rather than an oil-based vinaigrette.

RELATED: A Guide to Healthy Fats

Adjust your meal proportions

If there’s a chance that you’ll burn fewer calories in the hours after eating due to stress, shift your servings a bit to slash calories without having to eat less food. For example, eating one and a half cups of mixed veggies and a half cup of brown rice instead of one cup of each can save you 60-75 calories. Or instead of 1 cup of quinoa, mix half of that with half a cup of spinach to save about 100 calories. I think you see where I’m going with this—trading in a portion of your dense grains, even healthy ones, for low cal, fiber- and water-rich veggies is the easiest way to accomplish a quick calorie savings that doesn’t require sacrificing volume.

RELATED: 13 Veggies You Only Think You Don’t Like

Add metabolic boosters

Certain foods truly have been shown in research to raise your metabolic rate, and while the effects aren’t astronomical, they may just counter some stress-induced metabolism slumps. One of my favorite natural metabolic boosters is hot peppers. One study from Purdue University tracked 25 adults who consumed either no pepper, their preferred amount (half liked spicy food and half did not), or a standardized amount, which was about a half teaspoon of cayenne for six weeks. Overall both groups burned more calories when they ate spiced-up meals, and those who had been infrequent eaters of fiery food also felt less hungry and experienced fewer cravings for salty, fatty, and sweet treats. Try adding chili pepper or cayenne to steamed or sautéed veggies, or if you can handle a little more heat, garnish your dishes with a sliced jalapeno. Bonus: hot peppers have also been shown to boost immunity and lower cholesterol.

RELATED: 9 Foods That Boost Metabolism Naturally

Breathe before you eat

We continuously breathe without thinking about it, but recent Spanish research showed that relaxed, controlled breathing can effectively reduce cortisol levels. Before each meal, take a few minutes to sit comfortably in a chair, and spend a few minutes focusing on breathing, slowly and deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth. You may be amazed how quickly this technique can help relieve muscle tension and shift your mindset.

Take a quick post-meal walk

Whenever possible, try to build in a brisk 15-minute stroll after meals. A recent study from George Washington University found that this habit helped normalize blood sugar levels for up to three hours after eating. Can’t fit in 15 minutes? Go for 10, even five—just breaking a sitting pattern and getting your blood pumping can shift your metabolism. A post-meal walk can also serve as a little “you time” to unwind, clear your head, connect with nature, or catch up with a walking buddy—all of which can help reduce feelings of stress.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Aging

Gains in Life Expectancy in the U.S. May Be Slipping

Nearly four in five Americans over age 67 have multiple chronic medical conditions

The more chronic medical conditions you have, the shorter your life will be, say researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the study, published in the journal Medical Care, the team found that nearly four in five Americans over the age of 67 have multiple chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Obesity may be driving much of this trend, and may responsible for slowing recent gains in life expectancy. Life expectancy has been growing at about .1 years per year in the U.S., (that’s slower than rates in other developed countries).

The study used the Medicare 5 percent sample, a nationally representative group of 1.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, which included data on 21 chronic conditions. On average, life expectancy decreased by 1.8 years with each additional chronic condition among older Americans.

“When you’re getting sicker and sicker, the body’s ability to handle illness deteriorates and that compounds,” says senior study author Gerard Anderson, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins. “Once you have multiple conditions, your life expectancy becomes much shorter.”

For example, he says, a 75-year-old woman with no chronic medical conditions would likely live to at least 92 years old, or another 17.3 years. However, a 75-year-old woman with five chronic conditions will likely only live another 12 more years, and a woman of the same age with 10 chronic conditions would only live to about 80 years old. According to the data, women fare better than men and white people live longer than black people even with the burden of additional health conditions.

The type of chronic disease older people develop also seems to affect their life expectancy. A 67-year-old diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will only live an additional 12 years, while someone with a heart condition can expect another 21.2 years. But once people develop more than one chronic condition, the specific illnesses no longer matter.

“There are interaction effects among the diseases that result in decreases in life expectancy. Any condition on its own has a particular effect. When you have heart disease plus cancer, that has a particular affect, and then those start to accumulate,” says lead study author Eva DuGoff.

The findings may be important for calculating health costs in coming years, especially for Social Security and Medicare programs. Currently, 60% of people over age 67 have three chronic medical conditions that require medical care — a significant increase from previous years when individuals didn’t live long with chronic conditions.

“In some ways we’re a victim of our own success. As we’re living longer and our health system has gotten better, no longer are people dying of heart disease at age 50 so now they’re dying of heart disease later when they have other things like cancer as well,” says DuGoff. Whatever gains improved health care has provided may be eroded by the effect of these accumulating chronic conditions. “We need to reorient our healthcare system to care for chronic conditions. If we don’t reorientate ourselves in that way, the impact of chronic conditions on life expectancy could be extremely negative.”

TIME Heart Disease

Mississippi Men Learn About Heart Disease — At the Barber

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Barbershops may be the new doctor's office, at least in Mississippi where African American men are learning about high blood pressure...while they get their hair cut

Barber shops and hair salons are great community hubs where residents gather for both grooming and gossip. So public health experts in the Mississippi Delta have decided to exploit these social meccas to connect with groups that don’t often see health care providers, including African American men.

Heart disease and stroke, for example, disproportionately affect this population of men, partly due to genetics, and partly due to lifestyle behaviors. But in places like the Mississippi Delta region, these men also do not get regular heart disease screenings. They do, however, go to barbershops for trims and to catch up on community news. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funding a barbershop initiative called Brothers (Barbers Reaching Out to Help Educate Routine Screenings) located throughout the Mississippi Delta, where heart disease and stroke are the second and fourth leading causes of death in black men.

The Mississippi Department of Health spent a year recruiting and training barber shop workers on how to read a blood pressure screening, and discuss risk factors. During appointments, barbers talk to their clients about heart health, take their blood pressure, and refer them to a physician if they need further counseling. Recruitment was, and continues to be a challenge since some of the barbers were on board with the benefits of educating their clients, but worried about whether the program would hurt their business.

So far, thought, the barbers are being pretty persuasive. The project, which involves 14 barbershops that have so far served 686 men, just released its first set of data. Only 35% of the customers said that they had a doctor and 57% did not have health insurance. Among the men who received blood pressure readings, 48.5% had prehypertension, and 36.4% had high blood pressure. The findings, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, shows that the program provides care to men who need it, as well as gives public health care workers a better idea of how prevalent heart disease is in the region, and how many patients are in need of medical care. The next step for the researchers is to create a community health worker network that could introduce these men to the health care system and help them navigate more regular screenings and better treatment of their condition.

Shifting health care from the clinic to the community isn’t a new idea; in some areas, health screenings and education are conducted in churches. But the faithful are a select group, and the study’s lead author says it’s important to bring services to hard-to-reach populations, such as young black men, to where they are. “We realized in our standard community health screenings–which were happening in churches–that we were not reaching adult black men,” says lead study author Vincent Mendy, an epidemiologist at the Mississippi State Department of Health. “We think the best way to reach them is through barbershops.” The program is part of a partnership between the CDC and the Mississippi State Department of Health, and is funded through September 2015.

Mendy is hopeful that the program will reach more men and bring them into treatment, since a similar 2011 initiative in Texas, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that barbers helped to lower blood pressure in a population of African American men by 20%. Based on this growing body of research, the CDC is considering relying on community health workers to help improve the health of minority groups that have a disproportionate risk of disease and death in the U.S. — but are often outside of the health care system. Barbershops aren’t clinics, but they do seem to be a good place to get health messages across.

TIME Nutrition

Why Your Bottled Water Contains Four Different Ingredients

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Water you buy in the store is not just hydrogen and oxygen. Here's why food producers add all those extra ingredients.

Next time you reach for a bottle of water on store shelves, take a look at the ingredient list. You’re likely to find that it includes more than just water.

Popular bottled water brand Dasani, for example, lists magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, and salt alongside purified water on its Nutrition Facts label. SmartWater contains calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and potassium bicarbonate. Nestle Pure Life’s list includes calcium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, and magnesium sulfate. And these are just a few brands. Bottled water companies are purifying water, but then they’re adding extra ingredients back.

None of this should be cause for health concerns, says Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and professor of Sociology at New York University. The additives being put into water are those naturally found in water and the quantities of these additives are likely too small to be of much significance. “If you had pure water by itself, it doesn’t taste have any taste,” says Bob Mahler, Soil Science and Water Quality professor at the University of Idaho. “So companies that sell bottled water will put in calcium, magnesium or maybe a little bit of salt.”

Taste tests have revealed that many people find distilled water to taste flat as opposed to spring waters, which can taste a bit sweet. Minerals offer a “slightly salty or bitter flavors,” which is likely why low mineral soft waters have a more appealing taste, Nestle wrote in her book What To Eat.

Many of the ingredients that are added to bottled water occur naturally in tap water and in our daily diets. Potassium chloride, for example, is a chemical compound that is often used as a supplement for potassium, which benefits heart health and aids normal muscular and digestive functions. Magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, and calcium chloride are all inorganic salts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that Americans reduce current levels of sodium intake by 2,300 mg per day, so you would have to drink a lot of water to make much of a difference, Nestle says. The typical amount of sodium in water averages at around 17 mg per liter.

But just because additives are generally naturally occurring ingredients doesn’t mean that consumers shouldn’t look at labels. If labels show calories, that means sugars have been added. Some bottled waters can be high in sodium, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends only drinking water that contains 20 mg of sodium per liter or less.

The best choice that many water consumers can make may be to just stick to drinking tap water. “To the extent that tap water is clean and free of harmful contaminants,” says Nestle, “it beats everything in taste and cost.”

TIME

8 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism Right Now

Feel like your metabolism is stuck in slo-mo? Coaxing your body to burn calories more efficiently doesn’t require daily Spinning sessions or hours at the weight rack (though being in shape and building more muscle definitely helps). From adding an extra ingredient to your smoothie to watching a funny YouTube video, you can fan your metabolism’s flames in just minutes a day by adopting these research-backed habits.

Add whey protein to your smoothie

When you’re tossing fruit, ice, and other smoothie mix-ins into your blender, take an extra second to add one more metabolism-boosting ingredient—whey protein powder. “Whey protein increases calorie burn and fat utilization, helps the body maintain muscle, and triggers the brain to feel full,” says Paul Arciero, a professor in the Health and Exercise Sciences department at Skidmore College who has studied whey’s effects on the body. All types of protein rev up your metabolism—protein has a thermogenic effect, meaning it makes your body produce more heat and, in turn, burn more calories—but whey may be the most effective non-animal protein. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that fat oxidation and the thermic effect was greater with whey than with soy or casein.

Health.com: 26 Smoothie Recipes You Need to Try

Drink before you eat

Drinking two glasses of water before every meal helped dieters lose an average of 15.5 pounds (five pounds more than the non-water drinkers) over three months in a study presented at the American Chemical Society’s annual conference. Taking quick hydration breaks throughout the day also boosts your metabolic machinery, says JJ Virgin, celebrity nutritionist and author of The Virgin Diet Cookbook, and research shows staying properly hydrated keeps you feeling energized. Try to consume half your body weight in water ounces, Virgin suggests; a 150-pound person would drink 75 ounces a day.

Don’t stop yourself from fidgeting

When your annoyed coworker tells you you’re bouncing your leg, perhaps you can explain that you’re just doing some non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)—the expert term for fidgeting. Research shows that NEAT may help you burn an additional 350 calories a day. “Small bursts of activity, like running up stairs, pacing while you’re on the phone, or shifting around in your seat all count,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym. “It adds up quickly, so take advantage of any chance to move more throughout your day.”

Health.com: 24 Fat-Burning Ab Exercises

Brew a cup of coffee

Caffeine’s ability to speed up the central nervous system makes it a powerful metabolism booster. “In addition, coffee beans provide antioxidants and real health value,” says Amy Goodson, RD, a dietitian for Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine. “Provided your cup is not laden with cream and syrup, coffee can be a great way to give you energy as well as some antioxidants.” Coffee has been shown to improve energy levels during exercise, especially endurance activity, and help people work harder longer, which therefore burns more calories. Drinking coffee after a workout can also be beneficial. Consuming caffeine after exercise increased muscle glycogen by 66% in endurance athletes, enabling them to more quickly replenish energy stores used through exercise, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Need more caffeine? Swap in green tea

If you’re like an average American and drink three cups of coffee a day, consider swapping in green tea for one of them. In addition to giving you the metabolism-boosting caffeine jolt you crave, green tea is a rich source of antioxidants called catechins. And, in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, drinking green tea combined with a total of three hours of moderate exercise a week reduced abdominal fat in subjects over a three-month period. “Unsweetened, brewed green tea was shown to increase calorie burn by about 100 calories per day,” says Michelle Dudash, RD, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. For best results, Dudash recommends fresh-brewed green tea only—it takes just a couple minutes to make. “Bottled green tea tends to have a lower concentration of the beneficial compounds,” she says, not to mention that many are loaded with added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Health.com: 12 Surprising Sources of Caffeine

Snack on yogurt

Probiotics, the healthy bacteria found in yogurt, pickles, and other fermented foods like sauerkraut, may help you lose weight—if you’re a woman, shows a new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Overweight men and women followed a 12-week weight loss diet; half of the volunteers also took a probiotic pill every day. Women in the probiotic group lost more weight than those in the placebo group and continued to lose weight during the 12-week maintenance period afterward (the probiotic didn’t make any difference for men).

Consuming probiotics in food form has other waist-friendly benefits: “Yogurt, like other full-fat dairy, also has a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that studies show can improve fat burning,” says Virgin. Avoid fruit-on-the-bottom varieties, which can have as much sugar as a candy bar.

Take a laugh break

Go ahead, minimize your Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Taking a quick break to look at funny cat videos on YouTube or take a Buzzfeed quiz doesn’t just feel good—you’re also burning calories in the process. A study from the International Journal of Obesity showed a 10 to 20% increase in energy expenditure (calories burned) and heart rate during genuine laughter. This translated to an increase of 10 to 40 calories burned within 10 to 15 minutes of laughter.

Health.com: Best Superfoods for Weight Loss

14 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism Right Now originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Cancer

HPV Test vs. The Pap Smear: Which Detects Cancer Better?

New studies are supporting the role that HPV tests can play in detecting cervical cancer.

When it comes to detecting cervical cancer, the Pap test has been the gold standard for more than 60 years. But as the role of human papillomavirus virus (HPV) in contributing to the cancer has emerged in recent years, screening for HPV has started to rival the Pap. And last week, a study of more than one million women added to HPV test’s utility; it found that the HPV test was more successful in assessing cervical cancer risk than the Pap smear.

With a Pap smear, health care providers scrape cells from the surface of the cervix and analyze them under a microscope for abnormal ones that could turn in to cervical cancer. The HPV test, on the other hand, detects the presence of two strains of HPV, which is responsible for about 70% of cervical cancer cases.

In the recent study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, women with a negative HPV test had half the risk of developing cancer over three years as women who had a negative Pap test, and similar rates to women who were negative on both tests (known as a co-test). Because most cases of cervical cancer are caused by an infection with HPV, women who don’t show signs of the virus are at a very low risk of developing the cancer –even lower than women who have a negative Pap test.

For that reason, says the study’s lead author Julia Gage of the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, “We think that HPV primary screening might be a viable alternative to Pap screening as well as co-testing.”

The potential role of HPV testing as a first line screening tool for detecting cervical cancer is also supported by an April study published in the Lancet that looked at four randomized controlled trials in Europe and concluded that the HPV test was the superior screening method. Other studies in rural populations have also been able to cut down on advanced cervical cancers and deaths using just HPV screening.

That’s why in April, the Food and Drug Administration unanimously approved an HPV DNA test developed by Roche as a primary screening tool for cervical cancer for women ages 25 and older. The test screens for the strains most commonly linked to the cancer — HPV 16 and HPV 18 — as well as for others. Along with the approval, the FDA offered guidelines for how the test should be used, advising that women who test positive for HPV 16 or HPV 18 should have a colposcopy, or a procedure that magnifies the cervix so physicians can take a better look at abnormal cells and take biopsies if needed. If women test positive for other strains of HPV, they should have a Pap test as a follow-up to determine the state of their cells.

Still, while the data appears to be showing that the HPV test is a more accurate predictor of cervical cancer, it’s unlikely it will replace the Pap smear any time soon. “There’s not enough evidence accumulated to have a guideline revision at this point,” says Gage. There’s concern, for example, that HPV tests could lead to more unnecessary and invasive procedures, since just the presence of the virus doesn’t always mean cancer will follow; many cases of infection resolve on their own.

And many physicians have relied on the Pap for so long, that implementation will not be prompt. “I understand that something that’s gospel one year may not be gospel the next, but I still tend to lean towards doing the Pap smear than just an HPV test alone,” says Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine.

Most health groups have adopted a similar wait-and-see approach, relying on a combination of Pap and HPV tests. In 2012, for example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released updated guidelines for cervical cancer screening, advising Pap testing for women between the ages of 21 to 65 every three years, or co-testing with a Pap smear and HPV test every five years for women ages 30 to 65 with normal screening results. Younger women, experts believe, may be more likely to clear HPV infections so wouldn’t benefit as much from regular HPV testing.

Now that studies are suggesting that HPV may be a useful addition, if not replacement, for Pap testing, doctors and their patients may be able to better exploit opportunities to detect and prevent cervical cancer and keep rates of the disease as low as possible.

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