Objective  To examine the psychosocial impact of testing positive for high risk human papillomavirus (HPV) among women attending primary cervical screening.

Design  Cross sectional survey. Measures were taken at baseline and one week after the receipt of HPV and cytology screening results.

Setting  Well women's clinic in London, UK.

Population or Sample  Four hundred and twenty-eight women aged 20–64 years.

Methods  Postal questionnaire survey.

Main outcome measures  Psychosocial and psychosexual outcomes were anxiety, distress and feelings about current, past and future sexual relationships.

Results  Women with normal cytology who tested positive for HPV (HPV+) were significantly more anxious and distressed than women who were negative (HPV) using both a state anxiety measure [F(1,267) = 29, P < 0.0001] and a screening specific measure of psychological distress [F(1,267) = 69, P < 0.0001]. Women with an abnormal or unsatisfactory smear result, who tested HPV+, were significantly more distressed than HPV women with the same smear result [F(1,267) = 8.8, P= 0.002], but there was no significant difference in state anxiety. Irrespective of cytology result, HPV+ women reported feeling significantly worse about their sexual relationships. Approximately one-third of women who tested positive reported feeling worse about past and future sexual relationships compared with less than 2% of HPV women.

Conclusion  The findings suggest that testing positive for HPV may have an adverse psychosocial impact, with increased anxiety, distress and concern about sexual relationships. Psychosocial outcomes of HPV testing need further investigation and must be considered alongside clinical and economic decisions to include HPV testing in routine cervical screening.