At What Age & How Often Do Women Need a PAP Smear?
PAP smears are essential components of women’s health check-ups, but scheduling a pelvic exam is a chore that many women put off – for obvious reasons.
But cervical cancer is an extremely serious – and potentially fatal – women’s health concern. Approximately 13,800 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States alone, according to the American Cancer Society. And approximately 4,290 women died from cervical cancer in the U.S. in 2020. So early detection is crucial for every woman’s well-being.
In this article top Dearborn Heights OBGYN Dr. Chadi Haddad, MD discusses when, at what age, and how often women need PAP smears – to ensure that cervical cancer is caught as early as possible when it is most treatable.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by specific strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. HPV is incredibly prevalent, and while most infections clear on their own, certain persistent high-risk types can lead to cervical cancer over time.
An HPV vaccination was not introduced until 2006 – which was only effective against 6 strains if HPV. In 2014 Gardasil 9 HPV vaccine was approved – protecting against 9 strains of HPV. However, this means that millions of women in the generations before the vaccine may have been exposed to the HPV virus which causes cervical cancer.
Originally approved for females ages 9 through 26. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now says people can get vaccinated up to age 45. However, if you have already been exposed to the human papillomavirus, the HPV vaccine is “too late” to prevent cervical cancer.
Why Early Detection of Cervical Cancer Matters
Early detection of cervical cancer is vital because it is highly treatable when caught in its early stages. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that the five-year survival rate for localized cervical cancer is approximately 92%. However, if the cancer has spread to distant organs, the survival rate drops significantly to around 17% according to the American Cancer Society.
This is why you should never put off your PAP smear beyond the recommended timeline!
Regular PAP smears, as recommended by healthcare guidelines, help identify any abnormal cervical cell changes or early signs of cancer. When detected early, these abnormalities can be managed or treated effectively, preventing the progression to invasive cancer – underscoring the life-saving potential of routine PAP Smears.
What Exactly Is a PAP Smear?
The name “PAP smear” might sound a bit mysterious, but it actually just stands for the last name of the Greek-American doctor who developed this revolutionary screening method, Dr. George Papanicolaou.
A PAP smear, also known as a PAP test, is a simple and important screening procedure. During a PAP smear, Dr. Haddad collects a small sample of cells from your cervix, which is the lower part of your uterus. These cells are then examined under a microscope to check for any abnormalities or early signs of cervical cancer. The PAP smear has been a cornerstone of cervical cancer screening for decades and remains a valuable tool for early detection.
While both the PAP smear and HPV test are essential components of cervical cancer screening, they serve slightly different purposes. Depending on your age and health history Dr. Haddad may recommend one or the other, or both, as part of your routine cervical cancer screening.
The HPV test specifically checks for the presence of high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) in cervical cells. HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer, and testing for it can help identify women at higher risk. Combining the PAP smear and HPV test (co-testing) is another screening option, as it provides comprehensive information about both cervical cell changes and HPV infection.
PAP Smear Age & Frequency Recommendations
The recommendations for PAP smears come from experts in women’s health, primarily the prestigious American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), of which Dr. Haddad is a member. These organizations regularly review the latest research and update their guidelines on PAP smear age and frequency, to ensure the best care for women.
The ACOG guidelines suggest that most women start getting PAP smears at the age of 21. So, if you’re younger than 21, you generally don’t need a PAP smear – even though you may need a pelvic exam for other reasons.
The ACOG recommendations also state that if you’re between 21 and 29 years old, you should get a PAP smear every three years.
However, if you’re between 30 and 65, you have a couple of options. You can either get a PAP smear every three years, like those in the younger age group, or you can choose a combined test called co-testing, which includes a PAP smear and a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV). If both results are normal, you can extend the testing interval to every five years.
After age 65, a woman generally no longer needs PAP smears or other cervical cancer screening if she has had adequate negative prior screening results.
Additionally, women who have had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix do not need PAP smears or HPV screening, unless they have a history of cervical cancer or of precancerous cervical lesions.
The frequency of your PAP smears, however, ultimately should be decided by your gynecologist. Depending on your age, any unique risk factors you may have, and the testing method used, you and Dr. Haddad will decide is best for you. Regular screening is essential to catch any potential issues early, but it’s also important to follow the recommended intervals to avoid unnecessary tests.
Pelvic Exams: More than Just PAP Smears
While PAP Smears are a vital component of women’s health, it’s crucial to recognize that pelvic exams encompass a lot more than just cervical cancer screening. Regular pelvic exams offer valuable opportunities to assess and address various gynecological concerns, extending far beyond cervical cancer screening.
Pelvic exams provide an opportunity for healthcare providers to investigate the underlying causes of abnormal symptoms, such as:
- Abnormal Bleeding: Irregular menstrual cycles, postmenopausal bleeding, or intermenstrual bleeding can signal various gynecological issues, including hormonal imbalances, polyps, fibroids, or even cancer. A pelvic exam can help pinpoint the cause.
- Abnormal Vaginal Discharge: Changes in vaginal discharge, such as odor, color, or consistency, may indicate infections (e.g., yeast or bacterial infections) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). A pelvic exam allows for proper evaluation and diagnosis.
- Pelvic Pain: Persistent or recurrent pelvic pain can have several origins, including endometriosis, ovarian cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or adhesions. A pelvic exam assists in assessing the source of discomfort.
- Pain During Sex: Pain during intercourse (dyspareunia) can be distressing and may stem from various factors, such as infections, vaginal dryness, or musculoskeletal issues. A pelvic exam aids in identifying contributing factors.
And for women experiencing difficulties conceiving, a pelvic exam can be a crucial step in evaluating fertility. It helps assess the health of reproductive organs, including the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and cervix. Identifying any structural abnormalities or conditions that may hinder fertility allows for targeted interventions and treatment plans.
Women with pre-existing gynecological conditions, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), also benefit from regular pelvic exams. These exams help monitor the progression of these conditions, track changes, and adjust treatment strategies accordingly.
PAP Smears OBGYN | Dearborn Heights
PAP smear and HPV screening for cervical cancer are an important part of helping ensure that you live a long and healthy life. The ACOG PAP Smear Guidelines are in place to ensure that you receive appropriate and timely screenings, promoting your overall well-being and early detection of any concerns related to cervical health. But when and how often you need a PAP smear should be determined by your age, risk factors, and individual circumstances, by a gynecologist like Dr. Haddad.
And while PAP Smears are an integral aspect of pelvic exams, they are just one facet of comprehensive gynecological care. Scheduling your routine pelvic exam is an opportunity to address a wide range of gynecological concerns, from abnormal periods, sexual difficulties, other unusual symptoms, fertility evaluation and more.
CLICK HERE to schedule your annual exam, PAP smears, and health screenings with Dr. Chadi Haddad, MD or Nurse Practitioner Lucy Schoemer, DNP in Dearborn Heights, today!
PAP Smears | Dearborn Heights: 313.724.3759
Obstetrics & Gynecology Blog
Thank you for visiting Dr. Haddad’s blog, where he keeps you updated on the latest news and developments in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology.
Please check back often to read about new advancements and state-of-the-art technologies in women’s healthcare, pregnancy and delivery, anti-aging, and body rejuvenation.