What Should I Know About Screening?
Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early—
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
- The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are sent to a laboratory.
- If you are getting a Pap test, the cells will be checked to see if they look normal.
- If you are getting an HPV test, the cells will be tested for HPV.
How to Prepare for Your Pap or HPV Test
You should not schedule your test for a time when you are having your period. If you are going to have a test in the next two days—
- You should not douche (rinse the vagina with water or another fluid).
- You should not use a tampon.
- You should not have sex.
- You should not use a birth control foam, cream, or jelly.
- You should not use a medicine or cream in your vagina.
When to Get Screened
If You Are 21 to 29 Years Old
You should start getting Pap tests at age 21. If your Pap test result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
If You Are 30 to 65 Years Old
Talk to your doctor about which testing option is right for you—
- A Pap test only. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
- An HPV test only. This is called primary HPV testing. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
- An HPV test along with the Pap test. This is called co-testing. If both of your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
If You Are Older Than 65
Your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to be screened anymore if—
- You have had normal screening test results for several years, or
- You have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids.
If you have a low income or do not have health insurance, you may be able to get a free or low-cost screening test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Find out if you qualify.
It can take as long as three weeks to receive your test results. If your test shows that something might not be normal, your doctor will contact you and figure out how best to follow up. There are many reasons why test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.
If your test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your doctor will let you know if you need to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing. It is important to follow up with your doctor right away to learn more about your test results and receive any treatment that may be needed.
If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is low. Your doctor may tell you that you can wait several years for your next screening test. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for a checkup.
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
The Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines chart [PDF-175KB] compares recommendations from the American Cancer Society, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists regarding—
- When to start screening.
- Screening methods and intervals.
- When to stop screening.
- Screening after a total hysterectomy.
- Pelvic exams.
- Screening among women who have been vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV).