What is a Pap test?
A Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, is a physical examination that helps check the health of a woman’s cervix. More importantly, the test screens for cervical cancer. Pap smears happen at an OB/GYN office and take a few minutes. The doctor uses a speculum to gently open the vaginal walls. A pelvic exam occurs, followed by the scraping of a small tissue sample. The sample is safely stored and sent to a laboratory for testing. The lab will look for abnormal cancerous or precancerous cells and provide a report within a few days.
Are HPV and Pap tests the same?
During a Pap test, some doctors will also consider an HPV test. HPV is a type of sexually transmitted virus that can lead to complications, including cervical cancer. This test follows a similar process to Pap test, with a tissue sample sent for review. Early detection of HPV can lead to treatment that can potentially prevent cancer. Before, an HPV test typically happened along with a Pap test, but doctors can now perform each test separately. Some doctors actually prefer to do an HPV test first since an isolated HPV test can detect high-level strains of the virus. These strains are often precursors to cervical cancer.
How often should you get screened?
Cervical cancer screening is crucial to a person’s health and wellness. The type of test and frequency of testing is often gauged by the patient’s age and health status. Doctors recommend that patients start Pap tests at age 21 or, at the latest, age 25. If the results are normal, these tests can resume every 3 years. Patients with previously abnormal results may need more frequent screening. From age 65 on, Pap smears can stop once there is a history of normal results.
What about HPV?
HPV is quite common in young adults, with 80% of sexually active adults having some form of HPV. In many cases, the virus goes away naturally. HPV testing, however, should start by age 25. At this age, a nurse or doctor may recommend co-testing, which combines HPV testing with the Pap smear. HPV testing can happen every 5 years up to age 65. Patients with past infections, a weakened immune system, or DES exposure may need more frequent testing.
Prevention over cure
Both HPV and Pap tests can lead to the early detection of abnormal cells or viruses. These are precursors to cancer. If the results are abnormal, the doctor will recommend additional testing, like colposcopy or biopsy. For almost all cases of HPV, no further treatment is required unless there are other complications. The doctor may recommend yearly tests to monitor the virus. Following the timeline for both HPV and Pap tests is the best way to prevent cancer in the following years.