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Why Have a Pap Test?

Early on, cervical changes don't cause symptoms. Often, the only way to know you have cervical changes is to do a Pap test. A Pap test can find these problems early, when they are easy to treat. Pap tests can also detect some infections of the cervix and vagina.

What is a Pap test?

A Pap test is a process that helps find changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. The cervix is the part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. For this test, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix. This is done in your doctor’s office. The cells are then studied in a lab. A Pap test is a safe process. It takes just a few minutes and causes little or no pain.

The HPV connection

Human papillomavirus or HPV is a family of viruses that spread through skin contact. Certain types are almost always spread through sexual contact. Some HPV types cause genital warts. But not all types of HPV cause symptoms that you can see. Certain types cause cell changes in the cervix that can lead to cancer. In fact, HPV infection is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. Doctors can now test for HPV. Testing for HPV is often done with the Pap test. That’s why it’s important to have Pap tests as advised by your doctor. This helps ensure that any abnormal cells will be found and treated before they become cancer.

Who should have a Pap test and HPV test?

Ask your doctor when to start having Pap tests, whether you should have an HPV test done at the same time, and how often to have them. Follow these guidelines from the American Cancer Society for cervical cancer screening:

  • A first Pap test at age 21. And then every 3 years until age 29, HPV testing is not advised during this time, though it may be done to follow-up on an abnormal Pap test.

  • Starting at age 30, the preferred testing is a Pap test done with an HPV test every 5 years. This should be done until age 65. Other option for people in this 30 to 65 age group is to have just the Pap test done every 3 years.

  • You may need other screening schedule if you are at high risk for cervical cancer. Risk factors include having HIV, a weak immune system, or contact to the medicine DES while your mother was pregnant with you. Talk with your doctor about the best schedule for you.

  • If you’re over 65 and have had routine screenings for the last 10 years with no abnormal results in the last 20 years, you may stop cervical cancer screening.

  • If you had a hysterectomy where your cervix was taken out, you can stop screening unless the hysterectomy was done to treat cervical cancer or pre-cancer. If you still have your cervix after the hysterectomy, you should keep screening based on the above guidelines.

  • Routine testing does not need to be done each year. If your test is abnormal, your doctor will let you know how often to be tested. 

  • People who have been vaccinated for HPV should still follow these guidelines.

  • If you have had cervical cancer, talk to your doctor about the screening plan that's best for you.

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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