Most women know regular Pap smears are important for diagnosing cervical cancer in its earliest (and most treatable) stages, but what many women don’t know is how often they should have a Pap smear in order to help them stay healthy. And even if you do keep track of Pap smear recommendations, you might not know the newest set of guidelines that were just released by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last summer. Here’s a brief recap of what those guidelines recommend so you can make sure your testing is up to date.
Age 21: Have your first Pap smear
Earlier guidelines recommended women begin Pap smear testing within three years of becoming sexually active, which could have resulted in many young women being tested before age 21. Early testing wound up revealing a significant number of low-grade abnormal results that in turn resulted in over-testing. As a result, the USPSTF updated its guidelines to recommend women start their regular Pap smears at 21, noting that tests earlier than age 21 provided “no significant benefit” to patients. However, that does not mean you shouldn't have an annual pelvic exam if you're under age 21 and you're sexually active. In fact, it's a good idea for young women in their teens to get in the habit of seeing their gynecologist for annual exams so they can discuss their concerns, ask questions, and get the medical guidance they need to stay healthy.
Ages 21-29: Have a Pap smear every two years
During this period, routine Pap smears every two years are important for checking for early stages of cervical cancer. However, the guidelines say you can postpone having regular HPV tests during this time since many HPV infections that occur during these ages are transient, which means they’ll clear up on their own over time. In this age group, if a Pap smear comes back with abnormal results, additional HPV testing may be performed to determine if an infection might be the cause of those results or if additional testing is necessary. And as with younger women, you should still have an annual exam to address any other concerns you might have and to keep an ongoing record of your health that can be helpful in identifying subtle signs of disease during subsequent exams.
Ages 30-65: You might be able to have Pap smears every three years
If your last three Pap smears were negative, you can wait three years between smears, according to the new guidelines. Yearly exams are still important for your health, so don’t skip them. And if you get a new sex partner, you should ask about the need for additional HPV testing and other tests to help you avoid STDs.
Age 65+: You might be able to discontinue screening
If you’ve had three or more consecutive Pap smears with negative results and none of your tests during the past 10 years were abnormal, you might be able to discontinue Pap tests. However, since your health risks are unique to you, you and your doctor will decide if ongoing testing is a good idea. No matter what, you should still have annual exams to help you maintain optimal health as you age.
Are regular Pap smears really that important?
Absolutely; in fact, having routine Pap smears is the best way to “catch” cancer early so treatment can begin right away. The USPSTF reports that the number of deaths from cervical cancer has “substantially” decreased in the U.S. as a result of widespread cervical cancer testing.
If it’s been a while since your last Pap smear — or if you can’t remember when you had your last Pap smear — you could be putting yourself at serious risk for cancer. To schedule your Pap smear or routine pelvic exam at Alpha Internal Medicine, book an appointment online today.