Early on, problems in the cervix produce no symptoms. Often, the only way to know about cervical changes is to do a Pap test. A Pap test can find cervical problems early, when they are easier to treat. Pap tests can also detect some infections of the cervix and vagina.
What Is a Pap Test?
A Pap test is a procedure that helps find changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. (The cervix is the part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.) For this test, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix. This is done in your healthcare provider's office. The cells are then analyzed in a lab. A Pap test is a safe procedure. It takes just a few minutes and causes little or no discomfort.
Who Should Have a Pap Test?
Ask your healthcare provider when to start having Pap tests, and how often to have them. Follow these guidelines:
- A first Pap test at age 21.
- A Pap test every 2 years after that.
- A Pap test every 3 years if, by age 30, you have had 3 normal Pap tests in a row.
- A Pap test each year if you have a risk factor for cervical cancer. Risk factors include having HPV or HIV, immune suppression, or exposure to the medication DES while your mother was pregnant with you.
- If you're over 70 and have had 3 normal results in a row, no abnormal results in the last 10 years, and no risk factors, you may not need to continue having Pap tests.
The HPV Connection
HPV (human papillomavirus) is a family of viruses that spread through skin contact, almost always sexual contact. Some HPV types cause genital warts (condyloma). But not all types of HPV cause visible symptoms. Some types cause cell changes (dysplasia) in the cervix that can lead to cancer. That's why it's important to have Pap tests as recommended by your healthcare provider. This helps ensure that any abnormal cells will be found and treated before they become cancerous.