When to get a cervical cancer screening

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Who should have a Pap test and how often? What used to be a fairly straight forward question has become a little tougher to answer with new guidelines from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Before the new guidelines, a Pap test typically was part of a woman's annual exam, which also includes a breast and pelvic exam—two important screenings that you still need, even though you probably do not need an annual Pap test.

The best way to find out how often you should be having this important cervical cancer screening is to talk to your healthcare provider. In the meantime, here is a look at the basics of the guidelines:

  • The age at which you get your first Pap is 21.
    Formerly, women were advised to get their first Pap within three years of becoming sexually active. But HPV is a virus that leads to most abnormal Paps. Although certain strains of this virus lead to cervical cancer, most go away on their own. Your body naturally fights them off. Waiting until you are 21 gives your immune system a chance to work its magic and prevents unnecessary procedures.
  • Any woman who no longer has a cervix because of a hysterectomy (removing the cervix isn't always part of a hysterectomy) and who has never had an abnormal pap smear does not need a Pap anymore. However, if you have your ovaries, you still need to have a pelvic and breast exam every year.
  • Women between the ages of 21 and 30 you need to have a pap every two years. Remember, this does not mean you can skip a yearly exam, which also includes a pelvic and breast exam, and a chance to address other female issues.
  • Around age 65-70, you may be able to stop having Paps. If you have had three normal Paps and no abnormal Paps in the past 10 years, you might be able to stop. Talk to your healthcare provider.