Why Pap Smears for Cervical Cancer May Become a Thing of the Past

woman visiting her gynecologist

Woman consulting with her gynecologist | Source: iStock

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancers — if it’s detected early. That’s what makes the HPV vaccination and annual HPV screening so important for women. Since most cervical cancer is caused by HPV (the human papillomavirus), pap smears, or “the HPV test,” are crucial to detecting potential abnormalities.

Pap smears have saved countless lives in the last few decades. They allow doctors to sample cervical tissue and inspect it for precancerous changes before any cancer appears. The test’s prevalence in our culture is what makes the statement “pap smears may soon be obsolete” so strange — but it’s true nonetheless.

The USPSTF issued new cervical cancer screening guidelines

Dr. Douglas Owens, the vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) explained the new tests for HPV, calling them “an important step forward” in cervical cancer detection. HPV tests are now available alone or combined with the Pap test and guidelines suggest which to order based on your age and risk (highlighted below).

“Five years is a good balance between the benefits and harms,” Owens said. “It’s still highly effective at detecting cancer, and screening more frequently than that may increase some of the potential harms, so we think that’s a good interval.”

The new studies official guidelines:

  • Women ages 21-29 should get a Pap smear every three years
  • Women ages 30-65 can get an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years, or a combination every five years
  • Women over 65 who have had recent clear tests probably don’t need testing anymore
  • Women under 21: The task force does not recommend testing at all, even if they are sexually active

Be sure to consult your gynecologist or general physician regarding testing procedures and frequency before changing your regularly scheduled visits.