A Pap smear is a test for cervical cancer, one of the most common types of cancer affecting women. Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer-related death for women, but these days, Pap smears detect cancer early, so you have your best chance at beating it.
But your risk of cervical cancer varies based on your age, health, and other factors, so you may not know if you’re getting the right screenings when you need them.
When to schedule Pap smears:
Pap smears are an important part of every woman’s health care routine. Regular Pap smears increase the chances that we can detect cancer in the early stages when it’s most treatable.
Your risk of cervical cancer varies depending on your age and other factors. As your health evolves, how often you should get Pap smears changes too. In general, we recommend the following guidelines:
If you’re 21-30 years old
You should have your first Pap smear around age 21. Once you start getting Pap smears, plan to get one every three years until age 30. Many women choose to combine their pap smears with their annual pelvic exams.
If you’re 30-65 years old
Around age 30, you may start getting Pap smears once every five years. Talk to our team about combining your Pap smear with HPV testing if you haven’t already.
Some women may need more frequent Pap smears than others. Having a weakened immune system, an HIV infection, or a history of smoking could increase your risk of cervical cancer. More frequent Pap smears can help protect your health.
After age 65, you might not need to continue getting Pap smears. We review your past Pap smear results to determine if your risk of cervical cancer is low enough that you don’t need screenings anymore.
If you’ve had a hysterectomy
Hysterectomy is surgery to remove your uterus. Sometimes, doctors remove other parts of the female reproductive system, too.
If your cervix was removed during your hysterectomy, there’s no chance you’ll develop cervical cancer, so you don’t need to continue Pap smears. If you had a hysterectomy but you still have your cervix, you should continue to get Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer.
What to do if Pap smear results are abnormal
When you get a Pap smear, a sample of cells from your cervix is taken and sent to a lab. The lab checks for signs of precancer or cancer, and we share the results with you.
Most Pap smear results come back normal, which means there’s no sign that anything is wrong. But abnormal Pap smear results are possible. Abnormal results don’t automatically mean you have cervical cancer, but expect to return for additional testing.
Abnormal results can be triggered by something minor, such as hormonal changes or a yeast infection. To determine the cause, we may recommend a follow-up Pap smear to monitor any changes before we reach a diagnosis.