Pap tests are a critical screening test that should be a part of women’s regular, preventive health care routines. When your doctor performs a pap test, they take cells from the cervix and then send them to the lab to be examined under a microscope to look for cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. The test is not a diagnosis of cervical cancer, but it may indicate that further testing is necessary. Pap tests are also used to detect human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the primary cause of cervical cancer.
When Should You Get a Pap Test?
Physicians and patients should work together to decide how often the patient should get a pap test, as not all providers agree with the current guidelines, and some women may have a history of abnormal changes that require more frequent screenings.
The latest ACOG Guidelines are as follows:
- Cervical cancer screening should begin at age 21
- Women aged 21-29 should have a pap test every three years
- Women aged 30-65 should have a pap test and an HPV test every five years (co-testing) or have just a pap test every three years
- Women over the age of 65 who do not have a history of moderate or severe cervical changes or cancer and who have had three negative pap test in a row or two negative co-tests in the past ten years no longer need pap testing
Women who have had hysterectomies, have a history of cervical cancer, have HIV, have a weakened immune system, or who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth should consult with their physicians about how often they should be screened.
Pap Test vs. Annual Exam
It is important to note that patients should still receive their annual exam even if they do not need a pap test. Pap tests only screen for cervical changes and do not reveal any abnormalities in the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, or labia.