How Often Do You Need a Pap Smear?

You’re likely aware that your gynecologist recommends a regular Pap smear, but might be confused about the intervals of the test. In the past few years, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) updated recommendations from a yearly Pap smear to screening every three to five years depending on age and other factors. If tobacco is being used, it is recommended to keep yearly pap smears since smoking is a risk factor for cervical cancer. Here’s what you need to know about when to get a Pap smear, and why it’s important to follow these screening guidelines.

Why it Matters

Having a regular Pap test is the best way to detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages when it tends to be easier to treat. The test detects changes in the cells that could be precancerous, which is a condition called cell dysplasia. Cell dysplasia doesn’t necessarily mean cancer will develop, so next steps depend on the type of abnormal cells found. The OBGYN doctor at your women’s health clinic might recommend rescreening in a few months, or he or she may take tissue samples to test for the presence of cancer. This procedure, known as a colposcopy, uses a thin tube with a camera attached, allowing your gynecologist to visualize the cervix.

When to Have a Pap Smear

According to current ACOG recommendations, this screening should start at age 21 and continue every three years until age 30. At 30, screening intervals can increase to every five years for those with no history of abnormal Pap smears and are otherwise healthy. For most women at low risk, screening can stop at age 65. Most experts recommend that Pap tests, at age 30, be combined with screening for strains (16 and 18) of HPV that carry a high risk for cervical cancer. HPV is tested in patients who are 21-30 years old with ASCUS Pap smears only, typically because HPV is seen in patients who have a history of multiple partners or who are with someone with a history of multiple partners.

Talk with your gynecologist to schedule your regular Pap smear at the interval that he or she recommends.

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