Getting a Pap smear probably doesn’t make the top ten of your favorite things to do. But this important screening could protect your health and even save your life. During this test, your provider also screens you for human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) on the planet.
At The Center for Women’s Health, our board-certified providers Katherine Hilsinger, MD, FACOG, Douglas Thom, MD, FACOG, Cheri Coyle, MD, FACOG, John M. Fejes MD, FACOG, Mary E. Lynch-CNM, MS, Christine Dileo, DO, Branden A. Deyerle, MD, and Kristi Taylor, WHNP-BC, offer Pap smears and HPV testing as part of our comprehensive gynecology services for women at our Newport News and Hampton, Virginia, locations.
You might wonder about when you need a Pap smear and HPV testing — we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to learn what you need to know about these important tests and how often you should get them.
Understanding Pap smears and HPV testing
Pap smears, which are sometimes referred to as Pap tests, are simple but important health screenings. They involve a quick swab of your cervix and a laboratory analysis of the cells your provider collects.
The laboratory examines the cells for abnormalities, including cervical cancers, sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs and STIs), and cervical dysplasia. Checking for HPV is part of the laboratory analysis.
HPV is an extremely common virus with hundreds of strains. Not all types of HPV are sexually transmitted, and those that aren’t can cause other symptoms, like warts on your feet, face, and hands.
However, when people refer to HPV, they’re usually talking about the STI. About 40 strains of HPV are spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact.
Some of these types of HPV lead to genital warts. A few sexually transmitted strains of HPV are called “high-risk HPVs” as they’re linked to cancer—most often cervical cancer.
Low-risk sexually transmitted HPV usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. When it does, it typically leads to genital warts.
Unfortunately, high-risk HPV also doesn’t usually cause symptoms until it’s moved into the later stages of the disease. Although the most common high-risk HPV cancer is cervical cancer, the virus can also lead to cancer of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and throat.
Around 13,000 women in America get diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. Because it doesn’t cause symptoms until later stages, a Pap smear that reveals HPV and abnormal cells could save your life.
How often to get a Pap smear and HPV test
If you’re between ages 21-65, getting a regular Pap smear should be part of your preventive screening routine. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily need a Pap smear every year.
The right schedule for your Pap smear depends on your personal history and the results of your previous screenings. At The Center for Women’s Health, we follow the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommendations. These include the following guidelines for women:
- 21-29 years: Pap smear every 3 years
- 30-65 years: Pap smear every 3-5 years
- 66 years and older: Pap smear only needed with a history of abnormal results
Keep in mind that these are only guidelines. You could need a Pap smear more often. For example, if your Pap smear comes back with abnormal results, you might need another test the following year. You might also need more frequent Pap smears if you have a history of cervical cancer.
About abnormal Pap smear results or positive HPV tests
Over 3 million women have abnormal Pap smear results every year. However, fewer than 1% get diagnosed with cervical cancer. This means that if you receive abnormal Pap smear results, it’s not cause for panic.
There are many possible reasons you might have abnormal Pap smear results, including:
- Having sex before your test
- Using tampons before your test
- Inflamed or infected cervix
- Benign cervical growths (e.g., polyps)
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Cervical dysplasia or other causes of abnormal cells
If you receive abnormal results, we may order additional tests. And if you haven’t had the HPV vaccine, they may recommend getting it if you’re eligible.
A positive HPV test is another reason for an abnormal Pap smear. It means you have one of the high-risk strains of HPV that have been linked to cervical cancer — it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer.
If this happens, we may recommend a follow-up HPV test the following year to check if the infection has resolved on its own. It can also look for signs of early-stage cervical cancer so you can get the treatment you need.
Learn more about Pap smears and HPV testing by scheduling an appointment at The Center for Women’s Health at the Virginia location nearest you.