Cervical Cancer Screening

Search Knowledgebase

Topic Contents

Cervical Cancer Screening

Topic Overview

A Pap test, or Pap smear, is the most effective screening test for cervical cancer. It's often part of a pelvic examination. Regular testing can help your doctor find and treat abnormal cell changes on your cervix before they develop into cancer.

When to start Pap tests

Experts differ on when is the best time to start having Pap tests. Health Canada recommends that women have a Pap test at age 18, or as soon as she becomes sexually active.1 Talk with your doctor about when to start having Pap tests. If you are sexually active and wait to have a Pap test, it's still a good idea to have tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

How often to have Pap tests

  • Women younger than 69: If your first two tests show no abnormality, you should be rescreened every 3 years.1
  • Women 69 and older: If you have had at least two normal Pap tests in a row, no cervical abnormalities for nine years, and you have no history of cancer, you do not need regular screening.1
  • If an abnormality is detected during a Pap test, you should be retested every six months for two years.1

Women can also have an HPV (human papillomavirus) test with their Pap tests. If the Pap and HPV tests are negative, women can have their Pap tests every 3 years. But women who are at higher risk for cervical cell changes or cervical cancer may still need the tests more often, even if the results are normal.

It's a good idea to talk with your doctor about your risk for cervical cell changes or cervical cancer. Experts agree that some women may need to be tested more often if they:

Having the HPV vaccine does not change your need for Pap tests. Women who have had the HPV vaccine should follow the same Pap test schedule as women who have not had the HPV vaccine.

Women who have had a hysterectomy

A hysterectomy is a surgical procedure in which the entire uterus is removed, usually including the cervix. Occasionally the cervix may be left intact (supracervical hysterectomy). You and your doctor can decide on the appropriate screening interval based on your medical history.

  • Women without a cervix
    • Pap testing does not need to continue if the cervix was removed for non-cancerous reasons.
    • Regular Pap testing should continue if the cervix was removed for precancerous changes but may be stopped after 3 normal Pap tests if you do not have any other continuing risk factors for cell changes (dysplasia).
    • Regular Pap testing should continue if the cervix was removed for cervical cancer.
  • Women with a cervix
    • Regular Pap testing should continue until age 65 to 70 if the uterus has been removed but the cervix is still present. If a woman is unsure whether she still has her cervix, her health professional should do a gynecologic examination to determine whether the cervix is still present.

Women who have gone through menopause have an increased risk of false-positive Pap test results. For this reason, post-menopausal women with previous normal Pap tests may be advised to have Pap tests less frequently than every year.2

After any abnormal Pap test, your doctor will recommend follow-up to monitor the cell changes.

Cervical cells can be collected by several different methods during a Pap test. Some experts believe that the type of collection method can help determine how often screening should occur. Research on these collection methods continues.

For more information, see the topics Abnormal Pap Test, Cervical Cancer, and Pap Test.

References

Citations

  1. Health Canada (2005). It's your health: Screening for cervical cancer. Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/cervical-uterus_e.html.
  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2003, reaffirmed 2007). Cervical cytology screening. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 45. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 102(2): 417–427.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kirtly Jones, MD, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Revised February 16, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.