Hospitals and clinics have been offering Pap smear tests for women for several decades. The purpose of a Pap smear is to obtain cells from the cervix to determine if the patient might be at risk for cervical cancer.
In the majority of cases, cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Because of this, HPV testing is an effective screening strategy to prevent cancer.
The Pap test identifies the presence of precancerous and cancerous cells, while the HPV test looks for high-risk strains of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer.
CDC Guidelines for Pap Smear and HPV Testing
In 2018, the CDC announced new guidelines for Pap smear and HPV testing. As per the new guidelines:
- Women within the age group of 30-65 years are urged to get a Pap smear every three years, HPV testing every five years, or a combination of these two tests every five years. It is recommended that women should speak to their primary care provider to determine which test they should undergo, but experts recommend the HPV test or a combination of the two.
- Women between ages 21-29 years should continue to see their primary care provider and undergo a Pap smear every three years. More frequent screening is not recommended for women in this age group because experts believe that women will not derive any extra benefit from such screening.
- The CDC recommends that all children get the HPV vaccine at ages 11-12. If not, the vaccine is still effective when administered up to age 26; however, the earlier the better, as per the guidelines.
- There are no screening recommendations for women younger than 21 years or older than 65 years since women in these age groups are not considered to be at high risk for cervical cancer. In fact, experts believe that cervical cancer screening in women in these categories might cause more harm than benefit. Such testing often results in false positives due to which many of these patients have to undergo unnecessary procedures which not only adds to their stress and affects their health, but also increases their medical expenses.
These guidelines do not apply to women whose cervix has already been removed, who have a prior diagnosis of a precancerous lesion or cervical cancer, who have in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol, or who are immunocompromised.
Cervical cancer kills many women every year. Women need to take these recommendations seriously. For those who are apprehensive about approaching this subject with their health care provider, there is the option of home-based HPV testing. Companies like Nurx now offer home HPV screening tests that you can simply request online after answering a few basic questions. You can send in a sample for testing and the medical team at Nurx will contact you to discuss the results. If there is any cause for concern, you can then discuss different options with your family doctor.