Pap smears screen for cervical cancer and other gynecological problems

During a pap smear, your physician will collect and examine cells from your cervix, the opening to the uterus. This test is performed to screen for cervical cancer and other problems.

Why do I need a pap smear?

A pap smear, along with a pelvic exam, is an important part of your routine healthcare; it can find abnormal cells that can lead to cancer. In addition, the pap smear is useful for finding cancerous cells and other cervical and vaginal problems such as precancerous cells and inflammation.

Your physician may use a pap smear to diagnose the following conditions:

  • Inflammation
  • Infection
  • Abnormal cells
  • Precancerous cells
  • Cancer

Benefits of regular pap smears

Most cancers of the cervix can be found early if you have regular pap smears and pelvic exams. Cancer of the cervix is more likely to be successfully treated if found in its early stages.

Your physician may do a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV) at the same time as a pap smear. Infection with HPV is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer in women over age 30.

How often should I get a pap smear?

It's important to talk with your physician about when and how often you should have a pap smear. Experts base screening guidelines on your age and risk factors for cervical cancer.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), guidelines include:

  • If you are at least 21, you should start cervical cancer screening, even if you are not yet sexually active.
  • If you are younger than 30, you can likely be tested for cervical cancer every other year instead of yearly.
  • If you are older than 30 and have had three normal pap smears in a row, you can be tested once every three years.
  • If you are at risk for cervical cancer, you may need more screenings more often than the guidelines suggest, especially if you have a weak immune system or have been treated for abnormal cells in the past.
  • If you are 65 to 70 years old and have had at least three normal pap smears in a row, are not sexually active and have had no abnormal smears in the past, you may decide with your physician to stop cervical cancer screening.
  • If you've had a total hysterectomy, with both your uterus and cervix removed, you do not need cervical cancer screening unless you've had past surgery for cervical cancer or pre-cancer.