Health Information

Monday, September 20, 2021

Cervical Cancer and Pap Smear Testing

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Pap smear testing is often performed to screen for cervical cancer. It forms an essential part of a woman's routine health care because it can detect cancer or abnormalities that may lead to cancer of the cervix.

Current guidelines recommend that women should have a Pap test every 3 years beginning at age 21. Women with certain risk factors may need to have more frequent screening or to continue screening beyond age 65.

Women who have received the HPV vaccine still need regular cervical screening.

Causes for Cervical Cancer:

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are cased by infection with high-risk, or oncogenic types of human papilloma virus (HPV).

Although HPV infections are very common, most infections will be suppressed by the immune system for 1 to 2 years without causing cancer. These transient infections may cause temporary changes in cervical cells. If a cervical infection with a high-risk HPV type persists, the cellular changes can eventually develop into more severe precancerous lesions. If precancerous lesions are not treated, they can progress to cancer. It can take 10 to 20 years or more for a persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type to develop into cancer.  

What is cervical cancer screening?

Cervical cancer screening is a way to detect abnormal cervical cells, including precancerous cervical lesions, as well as early cervical cancers. Both precancerous lesions and early cervical cancers can be treated very successfully. Routine cervical screening has been shown to greatly reduce both the number of new cervical cancers diagnosed each year and deaths from the disease.

The main purpose of screening with the Pap test is to detect abnormal cells that may develop into cancer if left untreated. The Pap test can also find noncancerous conditions, such as infections and inflammation. It can also find cancer cells. In regularly screened populations, the Pap test identifies most abnormal cells before they become cancer.

What is the best time to be screened for cervical cancer?

The best time for a woman to have cervical screening is between 10 and 20 days after the first day of her last menstrual period. A woman should not have cervical screening when she is menstruating. For about 2 days before the test, she should avoid sexual intercourse, douching, or using vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies (except as directed by a doctor) because they may wash away or hide abnormal cells. After the test, she can go back to her normal activities and return to work right away.

Do women who have been vaccinated against HPVs still need to be screened for cervical cancer?

Yes. Because current HPV vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that cause cervical cancer. It is therefore important for vaccinated women to continue to undergo routine cervical cancer screening.