Pap tests: Understand the latest guidelines

Smiling female patient speaking with female nurse in exam room

A Pap test, along with a pelvic exam, is an important part of your routine healthcare. It can help find abnormal cells that can lead to cancer of the cervix. Your healthcare provider can find most cancers of the cervix early if you have regular Pap tests and pelvic exams. Cancer of the cervix is more likely to be successfully treated if it is found early.

How often do I need a Pap test?

It depends. It’s not as simple as it used to be, when everyone needed a Pap test every year. Now, guidelines have changed and are more individualized. Pap tests should start at age 21. For most women at low risk for cervical cancer, a Pap test is done every three to five years, and that time interval will depend on the patient's last type of Pap test. For women with other risk factors, Pap tests may still be performed every year. Your healthcare provider will explain how often you need a Pap test during your annual visit.

Why have the guidelines changed?

Things change slowly on the cervix. Many changes go back to normal on their own and don’t need intervention. It takes many years for detectable changes to become full-blown cancer. So, waiting a couple of years allows for your body to repair on its own and leads to fewer follow-up colposcopies and treatments. Those treatments are somewhat uncomfortable, and some can have long-term effects of weakening the cervix and causing problems in pregnancy.

Great, then I can skip my annual gynecological exam?

Actually, no. Whether or not you need a Pap test done, you still should have your annual visit. The annual well woman visit offers the opportunity for health screening, counseling about preventive health, and gives healthcare providers a chance to catch some problems early. Also, you still need breast and pelvic exams, even if the Pap test is not needed during that particular visit.

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