If it’s been a while since you had a pelvic examination, you might not know about the latest cervical cancer screening guidelines. The good news is that now you may not need screening as frequently as you once did. However, the screenings you get should be a little bit different now — although chances are, you won’t notice the change.
Why You Need Screening — and Why There Were Changes
Although cervical cancer isn’t as common as breast cancer, it still can have devastating results, especially for younger women who want but have not yet had children. The guidelines have changed because two screenings are now available: the original Pap smear and the human papillomavirus (HPV). So, which one do you need, or do you need them both?
The main difference between the two screenings is that a Pap test looks for signs of cancer cells on the cervix, while an HPV test (which is conducted much like a Pap test) can determine if a person has the virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
It is important to remember that screening guidelines are just that — guidelines. People at high risk of cervical cancer may need to be screened more frequently, and some women may need to start screening at an earlier age or stop at a later age. And while The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is recommending that Pap tests ultimately be phased out, it’s better to get a Pap test every three years than no screening at all.
Wait. What! No More Pap Tests?
In 2020, the American Cancer Society issued updated guidelines for cervical cancer screening — the first update since 2012 — in response to a significant decline in the cervical cancer death rate following the increased use of the Pap test for screenings, which identify cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage. Additional important developments are the HPV vaccine (see below for more information about that) and the HPV screening test, which been approved for use either on its own (primary HPV test) or at the same time as the Pap smear (co-test).
The new guidelines say that women who have not had abnormal screening results or previous cervical cancer only need HPV testing every five years. Screening should start at age 25, based on normal risk factors, and stop at age 65.
Don’t Forget About the Vaccine
The best way to avoid cervical cancer is get the HPV vaccine. As a parent, you should make sure your children get the vaccine, too. The CDC now recommends that children can get the first dose of the two-dose HPV vaccine as early as age 9 for maximum protection. Everyone — male and female — should get the vaccine by age 26. People between the ages of 27 and 45 may also be eligible to get the vaccine, in consultation with their medical provider. An HPV infection can cause several specific types of cancer. Research shows the vaccine is highly effective.
Find a Provider
Need an HPV test or vaccine? A St. Elizabeth Physicians women’s health provider in Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana can help. Make an appointment with one of our specialists today.