Pap smears are a life-saving cervical cancer screening procedure. The test can detect abnormal cervical cells before they develop into cancer. HPV tests are frequently performed during Pap tests to detect a virus that increases the risk of cervical cancer. A Pap smear that is unclear or abnormal may indicate an infection, another issue, or cancer.
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear (also known as a Pap test) screens for cervical cancer. It looks for abnormal cervix cells that are cancerous or have the potential to become cancerous. During a Pap smear, your healthcare professional takes cells from the cervix to test for signs of cancer under a microscope.
Why is it done?
Pap smears are performed as a part of a pelvic exam by healthcare professionals. The test checks for the following:
- Cervical cancer.
- Cervical cells that may be precancerous.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that raises the risk of cervical cancer.
When should Pap smear be done?
Women should start getting Pap smears after she has had sexual activity. The frequency with which you will get the test is determined by various factors, like your age, health history, and the results of your most recent Pap or HPV test.
Generally, Pap smears are typically performed:
- Every three years from ages 21-29.
- Every three years from ages 30-65 without an HPV test.
- Every five years from ages 30-65 with an HPV test.
- Every year for those who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or are immunocompromised.
- Every year for those whose mothers took diethylstilbestrol (DES) medicine during pregnancy. DES exposure during pregnancy raises the risk of cervical cancer.
Who can consider stopping Pap smears?
In certain circumstances, a woman and her doctor may decide to discontinue Pap testing, such as:
- Following a total hysterectomy. Ask your doctor if you need to continue obtaining Pap smears after a total hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus and cervix).
- If your hysterectomy was for a noncancerous cause, such as uterine fibroids, you may be allowed to stop getting Pap smears.
- If your hysterectomy was performed for a precancerous/cancerous cervix condition, your doctor may advise you to continue routine Pap testing.
- Getting older. Doctors generally agree that if previous tests for cervical cancer were negative, women should consider discontinuing routine Pap testing at the age of 65.
Discuss your options with your doctor, and together decide what is best for you based on risk factors. If you have several sexual partners, you are advised to continue Pap testing.
What is the difference between a Pap smear & an HPV test?
HPV is a widespread sexually transmitted disease. There are numerous forms of HPV, but not all of them cause cancer. An HPV test looks for specific types of the virus that raise your risk of cervical cancer.
HPV and Pap tests can be performed at the same time using the same procedures (a gentle scrape on the cervix for cell samples). When you send these samples to a lab, your provider decides whether the pathologist (lab specialist) should look for precancerous or cancerous cells (Pap smear), HPV, or both (a co-test).