A Pap smear is a screening tool for cervical cancer. As with any cancer, the earlier you detect it, the better your prognosis. With cervical cancer, a Pap smear offers the best chance to catch it early.
If you’re not familiar with the importance of getting a Pap smear, this blog is for you. Here’s how a Pap smear works and how often you should get one, courtesy of our team of providers at Arlington Family Practice. We specialize in providing Pap smears to women who need them.
Here’s our best advice when it comes to this potentially life-saving procedure.
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear checks your cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina) for abnormal cells that are cancerous or could become cancerous in the future. The test is named for a Greek American doctor, George Papanicolaou, who developed the procedure.
To conduct a Pap smear, your doctor places a medical tool called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum creates room so they can brush the sides of your cervix with a sterile spatula to collect cells.
The cells are then analyzed to check for cervical cancer, precancerous cells, and human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can increase your risk of cervical cancer.
How often should you have a Pap smear?
Pap smears used to be a regular part of your annual well-woman exam, but as medical knowledge has increased, the recommendations have changed.
Women should still have an annual exam with their OB/GYN, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) now recommends Pap smears only every three years, depending on your age.
We’ve learned cervical cancer develops slowly over many years, so screenings don’t need to be as frequent. Here are ACOG’s recommendations, broken down by age:
- Younger than 21 — No Pap smear needed
- Ages 21-29 — Pap smear every three years
- Ages 30-65 — Three options:
- Pap smear and HPV test every five years
- Pap smear alone every three years
- HPV test alone every five years
- Older than 65 — No Pap smear if you’ve had previous screenings and aren’t high risk
These are general guidelines. You may need more frequent screenings if you have a history of cervical cancer, you’re HIV positive, or you have a weakened immune system.
If you’re due for a Pap smear or want to learn more, the team at Arlington Family Practice is here to take excellent care of you. Call our office in Arlington, Massachusetts, or use our online appointment request tool today.