In the past, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of death among women. Thanks in part to regular Pap tests, death from cervical cancer has declined sharply. Every woman under the age of 65 should schedule regular Pap screenings, as they’re a crucial part of preventive health.
Skilled internal medicine physician and women’s health specialist Prabhdeep Singh, MD, is devoted to helping women achieve and maintain optimal wellbeing. Preventive health screenings such as Pap tests are a cornerstone of maintaining health. If you’re new to Pap tests, it’s a good idea to learn more about this important screening tool and find out how often you should screen.
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear is different from a pelvic exam, which checks your reproductive parts. A Pap smear screens for cervical cancer by collecting cells outside of the cervix and sending them to the lab for examination. Your provider may perform a Pap smear as part of a pelvic exam.
If you’ve never had a Pap test, you may wonder if it will hurt or feel uncomfortable. It should ease your mind to know that a Pap smear does not hurt. Your provider uses an instrument called a speculum to see into the vagina. While it isn’t the most comfortable instrument, you should not feel any pain. It helps to relax during the exam, as tensing your muscles may make it less comfortable.
The process of collecting cells is quick. The cervical cells are sent to a pathologist to look at under a microscope. The pathologist looks for abnormal changes to cervical cells. Results are usually available in a few days.
The importance of early detection
Pap tests can detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages and can even detect abnormal changes before they have a chance to develop into cancer. This makes Pap screening an essential tool in preventing cervical cancer and detecting it early when it’s easier to treat.
Screen early and regularly
The most recent cervical cancer screening guidelines changed the recommendation for when women start Pap tests and how often they should screen. Previous guidance recommended yearly Pap smears.
However, new research showing that it takes much longer for cervical cells to go from healthy to very abnormal prompted changes to the guidelines. If your cells are healthy and normal, it’s no longer necessary to schedule a Pap smear every year.
It’s recommended that women start scheduling Pap screenings at the age of 21. You should continue screening every three years.
At the age of 30, women should talk to their health care provider about screening frequency. You can continue screening every three years. However, if you’re at risk, your health care provider may recommend screening sooner.
Women with an increased risk for cervical cancer should screen more often. Infection by human papillomavirus (HPV) raises the risk of cervical cancer. Other risk factors include:
- Long-term oral contraceptive use
- Multiple pregnancies
- Compromised immune system
- Chlamydia infection
- Family history of cervical cancer
Talk to your provider about any risk factors you may have and decide together how often to screen for cervical cancer.
Women between the ages of 30 to 65 with average risk and a normal HPV test can opt to test screen every five years.
Women who are over the age of 65 and women who have had a hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer are not required to screen for cervical cancer.
It’s still important for women to have yearly pelvic exams to look for issues like ovarian and uterine cancer.
Screening tests help keep you healthy by detecting problems before they start or as early as possible. For questions and to schedule a Pap smear, contact our office to schedule a visit with Dr. Singh or book your request online today.