The number one question I hear from patients is: “Why do I need a Pap smear?” Most women know they need to get a Pap test as part of their regular health screenings, but they don’t know what it’s for or what their results mean.
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear is a test used to screen for cervical cancer in women, as some abnormal cells can develop into cancer. The test is used to look for human papillomavirus (HPV) in the cells from your cervix. Certain strains of HPV can cause of cervical cancer or genital warts.
Detecting cervical cancer early with a Pap test gives you the best chance at a cure. Having the test performed on a regular schedule of every three years for women ages 21-65 also helps detect changes in your cervical cells, which is the first step in halting the development of cervical cancer.
Pap tests are done more often depending on the result. After age 30 and with three consecutive normal results, you can go up to five years between screenings. Most women can stop having Pap smears done at 65-70 years old, or if the’ve had a total hysterectomy (for reasons other than cervical or pelvic cancer) and havn’t had an abnormal Pap smear.
What do my Pap smear results mean?
If only normal cervical cells were discovered, you’re said to have a negative result and won’t need any further treatment or testing until your next Pap test and pelvic exam.
If abnormal cells were discovered, you’re said to have a positive result. A positive result doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer, but additional testing will be needed to determine the types of abnormal cells present and subsequent treatment.
A Pap test is the single best way we have of detecting cervical cancer early. If it’s detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers.
Pap Smear Screening Guidelines:
- Under 21 years old: No screening necessary (no HPV testing)
- 21-29 years old: Pap smear every 3 years (HPV testing with abnormal results recommended)
- 30-65 years old: Pap smear w/HPV every 5 yrs (or every 3 yrs: Not HPV testing alone)
- 65 and over: No screening (Unless there is a history of abnormal pap smears)