With the institution of screening pap smears, the incidence of and mortality from cervical cancer has decreased worldwide. Routine screening guidelines for both abnormalities of the cervical cells and HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) have undergone some change in the last several years.
Most women do not need a pap smear every year.
Depending on your age and HPV status, some women are able to extend their testing up to 3 to 5 years!
Pap tests should now be initiated at the age of 21. We now understand that the HPV virus has many different types with a handful most commonly linked to cervical cancer in addition to genital warts.
A majority of the young, adolescent women that do get HPV are able to clear the virus.
The incidence of cancer in this age group is extremely rare, so screening before the age of 21 in these healthy women is usually not necessary. It could lead to unnecessary tests or procedures. Regardless of when someone becomes sexually active, the guidelines suggest screening at this age.
When Should I Start Getting a Pap Test?
In you are in your 20s, you should have a pap test at least every 3 years. We are not commonly screening for HPV in these women, again because the majority fight off the virus within 1-2 years. If the pap smear returns abnormal, then the cells are screened for HPV.
After the age of 30, we recommend HPV testing with your pap smear. This is because women 30+ that have HPV are more likely to have significant findings on their cervix that could be harmful. Most women that have HPV will have only minor abnormalities, but some can have worrisome cells that could progress to cancer if left untreated.
Did you know that some studies indicate that over 80% of men and women will be exposed to HPV?
Many patients are troubled that they have HPV, however with screening we are able to monitor for the progression of the disease and can be proactive in treatment if necessary.
HPV Vaccines May Decrease Cervical Disease, Reduce Cervical Cancer Risk
HPV vaccines are readily available and recommended for young women and men. Vaccination series begins around ages 11-12 consists of two shots 6-12 months apart. After the age of 15 there is a three-shot series. Women can receive this shot into their mid-20s, but the benefit has been shown to be less beneficial.
The vaccine has been shown to decrease the chance of getting severe types of cervical disease that could lead to cancer. Many pediatricians, family practice providers, and OBGYNs have these vaccines available so be sure to ask your provider for not only yourself but for family members and teens too!
In addition to the vaccine, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing safe sex, and being a non-smoker are ways that you can help to prevent cervical cancer.
About Chantel Roedner, MD
Dr. Chantel Roedner joined WakeMed Physician Practices as an OB/GYN after completing her residency at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earning her medical degree at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Her clinical interests include high risk obstetrics, infertility, minimally invasive gynecological surgery including robotic surgery, well woman care and contraception.