If you’re like the vast majority of women, you aren’t exactly clear on why experts recommend a Pap smear, or how often you should have one. The recommendation guidelines changed recently, which has created even more confusion around the topic. It may be helpful to first consider what a Pap smear is not.
A Pap smear isn’t the same as an annual well-woman exam. The American Cancer Society, the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology have changed the recommendation on how often women ages 21-65 should have a Pap smear, from annually to every three years. In 2016, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists followed suit, but added that women should be counseled that annual well-woman visits are still recommended.
A well-woman checkup involves much more than a Pap smear. During your annual wellness visit, you and your doctor have the opportunity to discuss any concerns you may have, and there are other tests and screenings that are still recommended you get annually.
During your annual exam, for example, your doctor may discuss sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, or your risk of ovarian cancer, or other issues. A Pap smear doesn’t address any of those concerns; a Pap smear has one important function.
A Pap smear is a test to detect changes in the cells of your cervix that could indicate cancer. Your doctor takes a sample of those cells and they’re analyzed to see if they’re behaving abnormally.
When you have a Pap smear, your doctor inserts a device called a speculum into your vagina to open it. This allows them to clearly see your cervix. They then remove some cells with a sampling instrument such as a specially designed brush. The sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Cervical cancer is a dangerous disease, and about 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with it each year. Having regular Pap smears to screen for the disease helps catch it early, and early detection leads to better outcomes.
To increase public awareness of the dangers of cervical cancer, Congress has designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month. Care providers and concerned organizations across the country highlight the risks of cervical cancer and the importance of screenings and early detection.
One of the drawbacks of the guideline change for the recommended frequency of a Pap smear, from every year to every three years, is that the screening can easily be forgotten. Each January the National Cervical Cancer Coalition works to help you remember.
If it’s time to schedule your annual exam, and you’re not sure when you last had a Pap smear, don’t take chances with your health. Book an appointment online or by phone at Monarque Health & Wellness and schedule a Pap smear. Our staff is happy to discuss the guidelines and your risk and to answer any questions you may have regarding your cervical health.