How Often To Have A PAP Smear

With how often the recommendations for women's health testing change, who can keep up? Years ago women were urged to see their doctors each year for a breast and pelvic exam to include a PAP smear. Today, women under 60 without health problems need to be seen for an annual well woman exam, but only once every three years does this exam need to include a PAP smear. Why the change, and what does this mean for you? 

False Positives

It took medical professionals a few years to figure it out, but the more often women are tested for cervical cancer the more often the test comes back positive when no cancer exists. This result is called a false positive, and increases a woman's health care costs without benefiting her health. The cause of these false positives is unknown, but given that cervical cancer is often slowly-progressing and co-morbid (meaning occurring at the same time) with HPV infection, studies have shown it makes the most sense to test women who have never had an abnormal test result only once every 3 years until they turn 30, and once every 5 years from age 30 to 60.

Exceptions to the Rule

If a woman ever has an abnormal PAP test result she will be given a number. This is the grade of the cervical cell dysplasia, or how close the cells are to becoming cancerous. A result of 1 means only normal, healthy cells were found. A result of 2 means the cells are still healthy, but are starting to show some signs of being prone to become cancer. Stage 3 dysplasia is pre-cancer, and a result of 4 means that cancer is present in the cells. 

Many women get results of 2 or 3 and go on to have nothing but normal PAPs after treatment for the rest of their lives. After your doctor decides you are no longer at high risk of developing cancer you can go back to having this test once every 3 years. Women who have persistent HPV infection or who continue to have abnormal PAPs will need to have the test repeated as often as every 6 months to monitor their condition and ensure they remain healthy.

Deciding how often to test for cervical cancer is a balancing act between testing too often and not testing enough. Talk to your doctor about your health care goals and risks and decide on a schedule that is most likely to keep you healthy.

Reach out to a professional like James L. Holzhauer for more information.