If You Aren’t Getting Pap Smears, You Are Endangering Yourself

fIt’s no secret preventive care is critically important. We all know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Maintaining your health means making appointments for vaccinations and check-ups rather than waiting until a problem occurs. If you wait that long, you may find out it is too late. This is why your yearly Pap smear, or cervical cancer screening, is important. It is especially vital to women’s health.

How Often Should I Be Getting Pap Smears?

Currently, the American Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women begin having Pap smears at age 21 and continue to have them biannually until they reach age 30, at which point screenings can decrease to one every three years provided the results have been consistently normal and a patient’s immune system has not been compromised by a recent health condition or virus.

Because they are not completely accurate every time, Pap smears need to be conducted regularly. This ensures that something missed on one exam is picked up on the next.

What About HPV Screening?

After age 30, women should, according to the American Cancer Society, be screened using both a Pap smear and a human papillomavirus test. They urge this approach because research indicates the HPV test is able to detect abnormal cervical lesions more accurately and earlier than the traditional Pap smear.

There seems to be agreement that the HPV test won’t replace the Pap smear in the near future. This is because there needs to be considerably more research into how to work the test into a screening program. The US Preventative Services Task Force and the American Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agree that Pap smears are still the best way for cervical cancer to be detected.

What Are Pap Smears Detecting?

You may be surprised to learn that Pap smears aren’t actually designed to detect cervical cancer. Instead, they detect precancerous changes or cervical dysplasia. The Pap smear detects these abnormal cells, precancerous changes to the cervix. Then your doctor takes over and determines the reason for the changes. If cancer is suspected, treatment is initiated to end the condition before it becomes full blown cancer.

What if My Pap Smear is Abnormal?

If you receive the results from your Pap smear and they indicate it was abnormal, it means that the test identified abnormal cells on your cervix. Your doctor may decide to repeat the test four or six months later, depending on the variety of cells identified. In other instances, the doctor may choose to perform a colonoscopy, which will allow for a better view of the cervix, and take tissue samples that will be biopsied in order to correctly identify the type of cells.

Colonoscopies are performed by inserting a thin tube containing a very small camera into the vagina and then into the cervix. When a doctor performs a biopsy, he or she takes a small piece of tissue from the cervix and examines it under a microscope. These tests help direct treatment because they identify the type of problem present.

How Do I Prepare for My Pap Smear?

The results of a Pap smear can be less accurate is a substance is present in the vagina. For this reason, penetrative sex and douching are not recommended in the three days leading up to the exam. It is also best that the exam not be performed during menstruation, as this can also affect the results.

No one really looks forward to a Pap smear, but they are one very important way to keep women healthy. If you have not had a Pap smear recently, talk to your doctor to see if you are due for one. If you are, make an appointment and take care of yourself.

Malina Michaels is a sex educator, women’s health advocate, and writer. She works for a non-profit that assists women in low-income areas get the rehab centers and sex education that they need. In her writing, she focuses on these same issues.

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