A gynecology checkup used to automatically include a Pap test. Today, women still need yearly exams, but they no longer need a Pap test every time.
Pap smears, as well as our knowledge around the causes and behavior of abnormal cells on the cervix, have improved tremendously. The big breakthrough was finding human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus responsible for abnormal cells on the cervix. We now have tests to find HPV, and a vaccine to largely prevent it.
Women should have their first Pap test at 21 and every three years after until age 30. The standard after 30 is to be tested every 5 years if the HPV test is negative. A Pap test doesn’t look for HPV, but can find cell changes to the cervix caused by the virus. Pap tests are an important line of defense against cervical cancer.
But, it’s best to prevent abnormal cells in the first place, and HPV is the cause of changes on the cervix.
HPV is passed during sex, and though condoms may reduce HPV transmission, they don’t prevent it. It can take weeks, months, or even years after exposure to HPV before symptoms develop or the virus is detected.
Vaccines also help protect against the HPV types responsible for most cancers. The vaccine must be given before age 26, and is best given between ages 9 and 12.
Because the issues around HPV and cervical cancer are complicated, I urge every woman to talk with her healthcare provider or OB/GYN about Pap and HPV tests. I also encourage everyone to talk to the women in their lives – wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces, best friends – and encourage them to safeguard their health and have a conversation with a doctor.