Like many health-conscious women, for twenty-some years, I’ve hauled my naked self into the gyno’s office to get my annual Pap. My cooch literally starts cringing the day I make the appointment and doesn’t relax until after the whole shebang is finito.
But good news, ladies! The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is releasing new guidelines on cervical cancer screenings that will likely change all that.
New Pap Smear Guidelines For Low Risk Women
- No Pap smears necessary before the age of 21, even if you’re sexually active. (Teens, you can relax. Even if you get HPV, chances are good that your strong immune systems will clear it before it becomes a problem, and avoiding early screening may prevent unnecessary surgeries like LEEP procedures that may predispose you to pregnancy complications like miscarriage and preterm birth from incompetent cervix.
- From 21-30, Pap smears are recommended every three years, instead of yearly. Combining the Pap test with HPV testing every three to five years is the preferred strategy for women aged 30 and older. Annual Paps are specifically recommended against.
- No Paps after 65. Screening is not recommended for women 65 or older who have had three or more normal Pap tests in a row and no abnormal Pap test results in the past 10 years, or who have had two or more negative HPV tests in the past 10 years.
- Women who have a normal Pap result and a positive HPV test result should repeat both tests or receive a gene test determining whether they have HPV 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers. (Old guidelines recommended immediate colposcopy, but not anymore.)
- Women with a mildly abnormal Pap result (called ASCUS) and a negative HPV test result should follow up with either HPV testing plus a Pap test, or HPV testing alone, at intervals of three years or longer.(In other words, ASCUS with negative HPV is not considered abnormal.)
- Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should begin cervical cancer screening at the same age as unvaccinated women, i.e. at age 21.
If your Pap smears have showed precancerous changes on your cervix in the past, like mine have, the rules are different. So ask your doctor to make sure you understand what guidelines apply to you.
BEFORE YOU GET TOO PSYCHED and start dancing the hoochie coochie…
Keep in mind that you’ll still need annual physical exams. Most docs still recommend an annual physical, including an internal pelvic exam for women (and possibly, though it’s controversial, annual breast exams.) Your doctor will still likely require that you get your annual exam before she’ll refill your yearly medications, such as birth control pills or hormone replacement. But at least you can skip the scary metal duckbill!
Next: Why the changes?