All women, starting at age 21 should begin a regimen of regular Pap tests. The frequency of Pap tests has been extended to two to three years depending on your age and the results.
The new guidelines pertain to a new type of Pap smear, called the liquid-based cytology, which appears to pick up high grade precancerous abnormalties better than the former glass slide Pap smear. A normal reading on this new Pap test extends Pap testing to every two years. In women over the age of 30, normal or negative readings for the new Pap test combined with HPV (human papilloma virus) DNA testing extends subsequent Pap testing to three years.
The Pap test can help prevent cervical cancer by detecting early signs of cancer. In most cases, patients should request the new liquid-based cytology Pap smear, which is quickly becoming the standard of care, notes Dr. Kinney. The new test can also reveal abnormal cells caused by infections such as (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in this country. HPV can cause dysplasia and increase a women's risk for developing cervical cancer.
Other women who may have a higher risk of cervical cancer include those who:
- do not get regular Pap tests
- became sexually active before age 16
- have had many sexual partners
- smoke cigarettes.
The American Cancer Society recommends that all women begin yearly Pap tests about three years after they become sexually active, but no later than age 21.
"While this increased interval between Pap smear testing may be recommended and considered safe, this does not excuse women from their annual physical examination," says Sonja Kinney, M.D., obstetrician/gynecologist at The Nebraska Medical Center and director of the Dysplasia Clinic at UNMC. "There are a lot of things we check for in a physical examination that are just as important to a woman's health. We should look at the cervix every year even if we decide to postpone the Pap test until the following year."