Not too long ago, women used to have a Pap smear every year during their annual gynecological exam. The test was performed to screen for cervical cancer. Though you still need an annual gynecological exam to assess health and undergo other preventive screenings, you no longer need a Pap test at every yearly visit.
When you should get your next Pap smear depends on many factors. Here at Cary OB/GYN, our team of women’s health experts can talk to you about the Pap smear and determine when you would benefit from the test.
About the Pap smear
This diagnostic test screens for cervical cancer, which was once the most common cause of cancer death in women in the United States. The test evaluates a sample of cervical cells and looks for cancerous and precancerous cells. It also looks for changes in the cells that may indicate future risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is more responsive to treatment during the early stages. Finding and treating cervical cancer early increases your chances of a full recovery.
When you should get a Pap smear
One of the reasons you no longer need an annual Pap smear is because doctors now know that cervical cancer develops slowly over the course of many years. Additionally, cervical cancer screening now includes an additional test, the human papillomavirus (HPV) test.
Though there are hundreds of strains of HPV, certain strains are transmitted through sexual contact. Some of these strains are known to put women at risk of developing cervical cancer. During your HPV screening, your provider looks for those strains linked to cervical cancer.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women start getting Pap smears at age 21. Women need to repeat the screening test every three years until they reach age 29. Currently, HPV testing isn’t recommended for women between the ages of 21 and 29.
For women ages 30 to 65, ACOG recommends a Pap smear and HPV test every five years. Once you reach age 65, you no longer need cervical cancer screenings if your previous screenings are negative.
You still need regular Pap smears and HPV screenings even if you’ve had a hysterectomy.
When you need more frequent screenings
In general, most women need a Pap smear every 3-5 years. However, we may recommend more frequent screenings based on your personal medical and gynecological history, as well as your family history.
You may need to get a Pap smear more frequently if you have:
- A personal history of cervical cancer
- A history of precancerous cells from a previous Pap smear
- A weakened immune system from chemotherapy or HIV
- A history of smoking
Women exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) — a synthetic form of estrogen — before birth also need more frequent Pap smears. Pregnant women were prescribed this hormone between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, preterm labor, and complications during pregnancy.
Doctors stopped prescribing DES in the U.S. in 1971 due to its links to certain types of gynecological cancer. Women exposed to DES before birth need more frequent Pap screenings because they’re at greater risk of developing lower genital cancer.
Don’t remember when you last had a Pap smear? It’s time to schedule an appointment with one of your health experts. Call the Cary OB/GYN office nearest you today.