Until recently, most women were used to getting an annual Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer each year. However, changes in screening guidelines have made the annual test a thing of the past for most women. Here’s what you need to know:
Current guidelines now recommend that the average healthy woman should have a screening Pap test with reflex HPV testing every three years beginning at age 21. Women ages 30 to 65 should have HPV and Pap testing performed at the same time every five years or a Pap test done alone every three years. However, women with certain risk factors may need to have more frequent screening or need to continue their screening beyond age 65. Keep in mind that if you have received the HPV vaccine, you still need to have regular screenings as recommended above.
Pap tests can have risks
One of the issues with frequent Pap smears is that they can result in a large number of false positives which can lead to unnecessary biopsies and also put women at risk for possible pregnancy complications in the future. The cervical cancer screening guidelines were changed by the United States Preventative Services Task Force in 2012 in order to deal with these issues.
An important benefit of testing for Pap and HPV at the same time (cotesting) is that is it less likely to miss an abnormality than a Pap test done alone. This is because nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV test detects HPV infections that can cause cell abnormalities, sometimes even before they are evident. Performed along with a Pap exam, which offers a way to detect abnormal cells that can turn into cancer, the tests have proven a highly effective screening tool.
New guidelines approved by key organizations
Doctors have shown great confidence in the new screening recommendations. “We believe these new guidelines will be very effective in the fight against cervical cancer, while reducing the harm of false positive tests,” remarked Dr. Steven Solano, an OB-Gyn physician at Reliant Medical Group. “We’re confident that women will benefit from these new guidelines, which have been approved by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Cancer Society and other organizations.”
A key point to remember is that these guideline changes apply only to healthy women without risk factors. They do not apply to women who have had unusual symptoms, a positive Pap test result or a history of certain illnesses, including dysplasia/abnormal paps or cervical cancer. That’s why it’s so important to discuss these screening tests with your OB-Gyn provider, who can carefully advise you on the tests you need.