Do you really need a pap smear?

The answer is “yes” but not necessarily every year and not at every age.  Here is why…

Now that we have clearer understanding of how HPV (human papillomavirus) affects the cervix at different points in women’s lives, we can now target certain women while reducing the number of procedures that we do on others.

Every year, millions of women are infected with HPV in the United States — but relatively VERY FEW actually develop cervical cancer.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. It’s spread through sexual intercourse.  But know that it is easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, so penetration during sex is not required to get HPV.  Infection with HPV peaks between ages 16 and 24.  This is the time when most women are exposed to HPV, which is often when they become sexually active.

Young women who are sexually active are very likely to have HPV. A study done on a college campus documented that 60 to70% of the young women tested had HPV. But, nearly 90% of all young women who have HPV will clear the virus within two years without any additional tests or procedures.

This is why women younger than 21 do not need a Pap or HPV test, even if they are sexually active.  This is not a free ticket to get out of going to your gynecologist.  Preventing unwanted pregnancy and screening for sexually transmitted diseases, like chlamydia (cla-mid-i-a) is essential at this age.

Also, consider getting immunized against the most common types of HPV.  Gardasil, a vaccine approved for females ages 9 to 26, has been shown to reduce the occurrence of moderate and severe abnormal changes in the cervix caused by HPV.

For those of us who are not so young anymore, here is another scenario: “I’ve been in a stable relationship for many years and my paps have been normal.  How did I get HPV? Is my partner cheating?”

What’s not commonly known is that some women get HPV in their younger years but never completely eradicate the virus from the body.  HPV peaks again in the 30s; women in this age group are the best candidates for the HPV test.

Testing for HPV, in addition to Pap tests, has improved the ability to pick up abnormal cells 8 to 12 years before they become cancerous.

An HPV test is usually done every 6 to 12 months for women:

1. who have had an abnormal Pap smear,

2. who have had a LEEP or Cone biopsy (two procedures that remove abnormal cells from the cervix)

3. or in women 30 and over who wish to have less frequent smears.

Also:

4. It’s possible to have HPV and have a normal Pap smear. In this situation, it’s important to have a Pap             smear and HPV test done at least once each year.

5. If you are a healthy women over age 30 who have a negative HPV test and a normal Pap smear do not           need another Pap smear for two to three years.

Remember, however, that annual gynecological exams are still necessary since they examine overall breast and gyn health. Talk with your doctor about how often you should have Pap smears.

We can live healthfully with HPV, as long as it doesn’t cause worrisome changes in the cervix.

There you have it. Now spread the word!

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