If you have a vagina, it’s important to keep it healthy and one of the crucial routines for maintaining that health is visiting a provider for regular pap smears. Pap smears screen for cervical cancer which, in its earliest, most easily treatable stages, typically causes no symptoms. Cervical cancer kills 4,290 people each year in the United States and 13,800 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.
Nurse practitioner Sara A. Bennett, MSN, FNP-C, with NHRMC Physician Group – Glen Meade Center for Women’s Health, has answers to frequently asked questions about the importance of regular screenings and visits with your provider. It's important to discuss your health each year during your annual appointment because screening guidelines continuously change.
Who Should Get Screened?
- You should start getting screened at age 21.
- If you are low risk with no prior history of major abnormal pap smear results, you can generally stop at age 65 - 70.
- Those who are 21-30 should be screened every 3 years.
- Screening for those who are 30-65 should take place either every 3 years or 5 years depending on the testing process.
- Generally, if you have had a total hysterectomy, you no longer need screenings because the cervix has been removed. If the hysterectomy was done due to a history of cervical cancer or cellular changes, you should continue screening for 20 years after surgery.
The above guidelines apply to most individuals with minimal risk for developing cervical cancer. Some individuals should speak with their provider about more frequent screening for cervical cancer, including:
- People with a history of cervical cancer.
- Those who have been diagnosed with HIV.
- If you have a weakened immune system.
- If you were exposed to the drug DES before birth - diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a drug that was used to prevent miscarriages/premature births between 1938 and 1971 before its potentially harmful side effects were discovered.
If you fall into any of these categories, you should discuss how often you should be screened with your healthcare provider.
Why Do You Need a Pap Smear?
- Pap smears are the most common and effective screening tool for cervical cancer.
- Pap smears are believed to prevent 80-95% of cervical cancer deaths.
What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
- HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease.
- New research indicates that your HPV status is likely the strongest predictor of your risk for cervical cancer.
- Most people have had HPV at one point in their lives.
- There are more than 100 types of HPV and 13 of those can cause cervical cancer.
- HPV usually does not cause any symptoms and the disease can lie dormant and then reappear years later – this is why you need to continue screenings even in a monogamous relationship.
Is There A Way to Prevent HPV?
The HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent HPV. About the HPV vaccine:
- The HPV vaccine was developed in 2006 and is delivered in multiple doses.
- The CDC recommends everyone age 11-12 years old receive the HPV vaccine but you can be vaccinated as early as 9 years old.
- It is recommended that everyone through age 26 receive the vaccine.
- If you are ages 27 to 45 and at high risk for contracting HPV and have not already received the vaccination, you should discuss whether you should get the vaccination with your provider.
- More than 12 years of monitoring and research have accumulated evidence that the HPV vaccination provides safe, effective, and long-lasting protection against cancers caused by HPV infections. Girls who have received the vaccine prior to age 17 had an 88% lower risk of cervical cancer.
Do I Still Need a Pap Smear If I’ve Gotten the HPV Vaccine?
- The HPV vaccine does not change cervical cancer screening recommendations because there is still a chance of developing cervical cancer even with the vaccine.
- The HPV vaccine prevents against new HPV but it does not treat existing HPV so if you contracted it prior to vaccination, you may still be at risk for developing cervical cancer.
Do I Still Need to Be Seen in Years I Don’t Need a Pap Smear?
- Even if you are not due for your pap smear each year, it is still recommended that you get your annual exam.
- Screening for cervical cancer is not the only healthcare routine that will take place at your annual exam. Your provider may also:
- Check your blood pressure
- Perform a breast cancer screening
- Refer you for tests such as a mammogram based on your age and health risks
- Perform a pelvic exam
- Discuss your mental health with you
- Ensure that any medications you are on are working properly
Are you due for your annual appointment? You can schedule an appointment with NHRMC Physician Group – Glen Meade Center for Women’s Health.