Your Questions Answered About the New Pap Smear Guidelines
Sue Ann Thompson | Apr 30, 2012, 8:40 a.m.
My friends, May 13-19 is National Women’s Health Week. This weeklong health observance is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health (womenshealth.gov/whw). The theme for 2012 is “It’s Your Time.” National Women’s Health Week empowers women to make their health a top priority. It also encourages women to take the following steps to improve their physical and mental health and lower their risks of certain diseases:
- Get active.
- Eat healthy.
- Pay attention to mental health, including getting enough sleep and managing stress.
- Avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and not wearing a seatbelt or bicycle helmet.
- Visit a health care professional to receive regular checkups and preventive screenings.
- It’s this last bullet that I want to focus on this month; mainly because there’s been a change in the recommendations for the Pap smear, an important preventive screening.
If you’re like many women, you’re used to having a Pap smear annually. It’s the single most effective and successful cancer screening test in history! Prior to the introduction of the Pap test in the 1940s, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of cancer death for women in the U.S. But after the Pap test was initiated, cervical cancer incidence was reduced by 70 percent and deaths from cervical cancer by 90 percent.
Now, for the first time in years, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has updated the timeline for this important screening. I’ve outlined the new Pap smear guidelines below. As always, you should check with your health care provider about what they recommend for you.
The new recommendations for Pap smear/cervical cancer screening are changing.
Previously, the Pap smear was recommended every one-to-three years. New recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force state that:
Women who are under the age of 21 do not need a Pap smear at all, regardless of sexual history.
- Healthy women who are 21 to 29 years old only need a Pap smear once every three years.
- Healthy women between the ages of 30 and 65 need a Pap smear only once every five years if they combine it with a test for human papillomavirus, or HPV (a sexually transmitted infection and the leading cause of cervical cancer).
- These guidelines are completely in line with the recommendations of the American Cancer Society and other medical organizations.
You should still go to your yearly GYN exams
Screening for cervical cancer with the Pap smear is very important but this is only one aspect of women's health. Although the new guidelines recommend Pap smear screening once every three-to-five years in healthy females, women are still encouraged to see their health care provider on an annual basis for breast care, pelvic exams and general women's health issues. The new Pap smear guidelines represent a significant step forward for women's health. Fewer Pap smears performed in conjunction with HPV testing will detect the same number of cancers as before but with the added benefit of decreased health care costs for women and reduction in the risk of false positive results, which may lead to unnecessary and painful biopsies, cervical procedures and an increased risk of infection, infertility, risks to future pregnancies and stress for women.
The best protection against development of cervical cancer is to continue Pap smear screening according to the new guidelines and to prevent HPV infection through safe sex practices and HPV vaccination. But not all women will be candidates for screening every three-to-five years, so again I encourage you to consult with your health care provider regarding these new guidelines to determine what screening interval will be best for you.
Because it all begins with a healthy woman… Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit wwhf.org or call 1-800-448-5148.
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