September 17, 2021
Did you know an annual Pap test to detect cervical cancer is no longer recommended by leading medical organizations? Frequently-changing guidelines can leave you feeling confused and uncertain. Here’s what every woman needs to know about cervical cancer testing, risk factors, and symptoms.
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
The Pap test is still the gold standard in cervical cancer detection. However, you may not need to be screened as often as you have in the past. Here are the latest guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG):
Women age 21-65 should get a Pap smear every 3 years beginning at age 21. Women age 30 and older can consider Pap testing every 5 years if the procedure is combined with human papillomavirus (HPV)—a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.
Important note about prevention: Almost all cervical cancer is associated with HPV and there is a vaccine to protect against it. ACOG recommends girls and women ages 9-26 years get vaccinated.
Women older than 65 who have had adequate prior screening and are not otherwise at risk for cervical cancer do not need to get a Pap test.
Women who have had a total hysterectomy do not need to get a Pap test, unless they have other risk factors.
Risk factors that may dictate more frequent testing
If you have these risk factors, your doctor may recommend more frequent Pap smears, regardless of your age:
- You’ve had cervical cancer or a Pap smear showing precancerous cells
- You have the HIV infection
- You have a weakened immune system
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
If you experience any of the cervical cancer symptoms listed below, talk to your doctor. Do not wait for the recommended screening time to be checked.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (after sex, after menopause, between periods, longer/heavier than usual periods)
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Pain during sex
The Best and Worst Things You Can Do
The best advice is always to talk with your doctor about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer.
No one questions the importance of cervical cancer screening. It’s one of cancer’s best success stories, cutting the death rate from the disease in half. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Women who don't get a Pap test are among the 4,000 who die from cervical cancer in the U.S. each year.