To screen for cancer, women receive a Pap smear, a sample of cervical cells that are examined under a microscope, usually accompanied by a test for HPV. In some cases, only the Pap smear or the HPV test will be performed.
“A Pap smear tells us if there are abnormalities,” says Dr. Cantillo. “An HPV test tells us if high risk HPV, which are the types that increase risk for developing cervical cancer, are present.”
Cervical cancer is usually slow growing. If your screening test and HPV test are both normal, you don’t need one every year.
Your age determines how often to get screened. Women ages 21 to 29 should get Pap tests every three years, the CDC advises. “HPV tests aren’t recommended at the age of 21,” says Dr. Cantillo, because HPV infections are more common in young women and most go away on their own. “The risk of cervical cancer in someone under age 25 is exceedingly low.” At age 25, it is acceptable to start including HPV testing with Pap smears.
Women ages 30 to 65 can get either:
- A Pap smear every three years
- An HPV test every five years
- A co-test with both a Pap and HPV test every five years (one swab is used for the combined test)
What you are offered may depend on what is available from your provider. Keep in mind that your screening schedule may change if you have an abnormal test.