Protecting women from cervical cancer is a priority for healthcare providers. According to the CDC, 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are detected each year, and 4,000 women die from this disease. The Pap test (or Pap smear) is a lifesaving tool for screening for cervical cancer. But recommendations for frequency change throughout our lives. Here’s a look at why Pap smears are vital and how frequently women should get tested.
What Is a Pap Smear?
A pap smear is a common cervical cancer screening test. It involves collecting cells from your cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects with the vagina. Your provider inserts a speculum into the vagina and uses a small tool to scrape cells from the cervix. It is typically painless and quick. These cells are then analyzed to detect cancer cells and abnormalities that could indicate future cancer. Your provider can also test for HPV (human papillomavirus) simultaneously. The Pap smear is named for 20th Century Greek physician and pioneering cancer detection scientist Georgios Papanikolaou.
Do I Really Need a Pap Smear?
Women should start getting Pap smears in their early 20s–even if they haven’t yet had sex.
- Physicians generally recommend continued Pap smears if you’ve had a partial hysterectomy (the uterus is removed, but your cervix stays in place).
- Your doctor will likely recommend continued Pap testing if you’ve had a total hysterectomy (with uterus and cervix removal) because of precancerous or cancerous cells.
- You can usually stop Pap testing if you’ve had a total hysterectomy that did not involve cancer.
- Doctors generally support stopping Pap tests after age 65 if you have a history of normal results with no cancer or precancerous results.
How Often Should I Get a Pap Smear?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists makes the following recommendations by age group:
- A Pap smear every three years for women 21 to 29.
- For women 30 to 65, a Pap test and HPV test together every five years, a Pap test alone every three years or an HPV test alone every five years.
- Screening is not necessary over 65 if you have a history of negative Pap cervical cancer screenings.
Your provider may recommend more frequent testing if you have any of the following:
- An HIV diagnosis
- A weakened immune system
- History of cervical cancer
- Exposure in utero to the cancer-causing medication DES (commonly given to prevent miscarriages before 1971).
Where Can I Get a Pap Smear?
Many women go to their obstetrician/gynecologist for Pap testing. However, women often prefer the convenience of getting a Pap smear from their primary care physician. Your doctor can typically take care of cervical cancer screening as part of regular checkups. This means one less appointment for patients and reduces the risk of letting it fall through the cracks. Women’s health is an ongoing priority at PrimaPatient in Ashburn VA, internal medicine and primary care. Our physicians are attuned and attentive to the unique needs of women patients and routinely incorporate Pap testing into annual wellness visits. We can help with all aspects of women’s healthcare. Talk with your doctor about adding this essential screening to your yearly checkup.