Whether you’re working up the courage to get your first Pap smear or you’ve just had your 10th visit, you know that it’s an important—albeit mildly awkward—part of a woman’s health routine. (PS, first-timers: Here are some tips to make your first Pap smear less intimidating.)

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a procedure used to screen for cervical cancer. During a Pap smear, a doctor will use a small brush or spatula to gently remove cells from the cervix. These cells will then be checked under microscope for cervical cancer or cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer.

Who’s at Risk for Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer happens most often in women and transgender men who haven’t had their cervix removed who are 30 years or older, but anyone with a cervix is at risk.

It’s also important to know that almost all cervical cancers are caused by a high-risk type of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus passed from person to person during sex. Sometimes HPV will go away on its own, but if it doesn’t, it can lead to cervical cancer over time.

Why Are Regular Pap Tests So Important?

A Pap smear can save your life. Cervical cancer is known as the “silent killer,” since it often shows no symptoms. Getting screened is the only way to know your cervical cancer status. If cervical cancer is caught early, the chance for successful treatment is very high.

Pap smears can also detect abnormal cells that may lead to cervical cancer. These precancers can be removed before they turn into cervical cancer.

So, How Often Should You Be Screened for Cervical Cancer?

How often you need to get screened depends on your age, your risk, and your health history. It’s wise to check with your doctor about your own risk, but most women can follow these guidelines:

  • Ages 21 to 29: Get a Pap test every three years.

  • Ages 30 to 64: Get a Pap test every three years, or get a Pap test and HPV test together every five years.

If you had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) for reasons other than cancer you no longer need Pap tests.

If you had hysterectomy due to cancer or abnormal cells, you may need to have Paps yearly until you’re in the clear.

So, go ahead and pencil in that Pap. Not only will it give you peace of mind, but it may also save your life.


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