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How often should I get a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer?

Dr. Matthew Schlumbrecht  

Matthew Schlumbrecht, MD, is gynecologic oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: How often should I get a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer?

Answer: A lot of conflicting information has been published in recent years about cervical cancer screenings, particularly regarding what age a woman should have her first Pap test and how frequently. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and a Pap test is a highly effective gynecologic test that checks for changes in the cervix that might indicate cancer.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 30 have a Pap test every two years, and an HPV test is also suggested. Women in their 30s should continue to have Pap tests every two years and should continue until at least age 65 or later, depending on certain risk factors. After three normal tests, a woman can extend the time between tests to three years, as long as she does not have HPV, her immune system is not weakened by another condition, and she does not suffer from dysplasia, a benign condition when normal cells are replaced by abnormal cells.

Because a woman under 21 has a very low risk of cervical cancer, she does not need to have a Pap test unless she has been sexually active for three years. Even if she has been exposed to HPV, in most cases, at her age her immune system will clear the virus over time.

Every patient is different, so it’s important for a woman to work with her doctor to determine an appropriate cervical cancer screening schedule. And regardless, she should ALWAYS visit her gynecologist or primary care physician for annual breast and pelvic exams, even in the years she does not need a Pap test.

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