Surely your gynecologist (and your mom or daughter or best friend) has repeated the mantra: Get a Pap smear every year. Whether or not you listened (and we hope you did!), it has been and is the standard of care. But recent research has brought new questions to light and led to a rewrite of the old standard.
The details have changed, but the test is still as important as ever. Here's what you need to know.
What is a Pap smear?
To perform the test, usually as part of your annual gynecology check-up, your doctor first inserts a speculum to hold your vagina open and uses a swab to collect cells from in and around your cervix, where your uterus opens into the vaginal canal. The cells are put on a slide and sent to a laboratory where they are examined for abnormal cells that might signal cancerous growth.
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Why get a Pap smear?
A Pap is typically done in order to look for cervical cancer. New studies show that a Pap smear may also be capable of detecting signs of uterine and ovarian cancers.
A quick note about the human papillomavirus (HPV): This sexually transmitted infection causes most cases of cervical cancer. By age 50, you have an 80 percent chance of getting HPV. The more dangerous versions give you little or no symptoms, so you might not even know you have it. If you are between the ages of 13 and 26, go get the shots! If you have a daughter between the ages of 13 and 26, send her to get the shots!
When should I get a Pap smear?
As we said, it's been the common wisdom for decades that women should get a Pap smear once every year. But in 2012, a designated task force updated the guidelines, suggesting less frequent screenings, usually every three years. One of the main reasons behind the revision is that "false positives"-that is, thinking there is a problem when there isn't-can lead to unnecessary further testing and removal of healthy tissue, as well as needless treatment that could create pregnancy complications down the road.
Here are our Pap smear recommendations by age:
Under 21: Not recommended
Ages 21-29: Every two years
Ages 30-80: If you generally make healthy choices in your life and have had three normal Paps in a row, talk to your doctor about reducing the frequency of screenings to every three years. (The task force guidelines cap this category at 65, but we believe it should go to age 80, or 15 years prior to predicted lifespan).
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Over 80: Ask your doctor if you can stop having Pap tests.
As with any tests, treatments or medications, communication is key. Talk to your gynecologist about your personal risks and the best course of action for you.