A Pap smear is the gold standard test for detecting cervical cancer or precancerous changes in cervical cells. Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). More than 79 million women and men in the United States are infected by HPV, but most aren’t aware they have the infection.
According to the American Sexual Health Association, most sexually active people will contract an HPV infection during their lifetimes. You can get HPV from intimate touching, not just intercourse. That’s one reason why a Pap smear is such an important part of early detection of cervical cancer.
At Mian OB/GYN & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rafiq Mian, MD, our caring and discreet OB/GYN, performs a Pap smear as part of a well-woman exam, when appropriate. How often you should receive a Pap smear depends on your age and your risk for HPV infection.
Start Pap smears at age 21
If you’re a woman who’s ever been sexually active, you should have a Pap smear. Even if you had sex at a young age, you don’t need to start your regular Pap exams until age 21 because cervical cancer is a very slow-growing cancer. It usually takes anywhere from 10-20 years to develop and so would not be detectable before that.
It’s important to note that even if you’re technically a virgin, you could still be at risk. If you have any kind of intimate skin-to-skin contact with another person, you could contract HPV. That’s why condoms can’t prevent an HPV infection; even fingering or oral sex can transmit the virus.
If you’re 21-29
Women who are between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap smear every three years, according to guidelines set by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Some women ages 25-29 might opt for HPV testing only. However, a Pap smear is still the best method for detecting cervical cancer or precancerous changes.
If you’re 30-65
Once you hit 30, you have more options for detecting cervical cancer early.
- Pap smear only, every three years
- Pap smear and HPV test, every five years
- HPV test only, every five years
Both the Pap test and the HPV test are fast and simple. You can have an HPV test at the same time you get your Pap smear, if you choose.
If you’re over 65
Women who are over the age of 65 no longer have to undergo Pap smears, as long as their recent Pap smears were normal. Cervical cancer takes a decade or two to develop. However, if your family is long lived, and you continue to be sexually active, you may opt to test every three years, just to be safe.
If you’re at high risk
Pap tests every 3-5 years are sufficient for women at average risk of cervical cancer. However, you may need more frequent screening if you:
- Already had cervical cancer
- Were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb
- Have HIV/AIDs
- Are immunocompromised
Dr. Mian lets you know how often you should be tested if you have special circumstances or medical conditions.
If you had a hysterectomy
You might think that a hysterectomy that removes part or all of your uterus and cervix would protect you from cervical cancer, but it doesn’t, necessarily. You may have dysplastic (i.e. abnormal) cervical cells at the top of your vagina. Dr. Mian may recommend regular screening for 20 years after your surgery if you have a history of cervical cancer or severe cervical cell changes.
Take care of your health and future by getting a regular Pap smear. To set up a well-woman exam and Pap smear at Mian OB/GYN & Associates, call us or use our online booking form.