New guidelines for Pap smears

doctor and nurse with patient in hospital

OK, ladies, you’ve heard this before: Get your checkups! That includes a visit to your gynecologist for a mammogram, clinical breast exam and Pap smear. We know for a fact that early detection saves lives!

There is something new, however, when it comes to when and how often a woman should have a Pap smear. That’s an internal exam during which your doctor collects cells from the cervix and sends them to be screened for abnormalities. For the past 60 years, a Pap smear has been part of every woman’s annual gynecological checkup. In response, death rates from cervical cancer have fallen more than 50 percent since the early 1920s, when cervical cancer was a leading killer.

But based on what scientists have learned, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now recommends Pap smears less often. Research shows there’s less than a 1 percent chance of a woman developing cervical cancer up to five years after a negative Pap smear. So instead of annual testing, the USPSTF now recommends:

  • Pap smear once every three years for women between ages 21 and 65 
  • No Pap smear for women under age 21 or over age 65 unless they have a history of gynecological problems 

Jonathan Reinstine, M.D., with Associates in OB/GYN, a Part of Norton Women’s Care, told me, “In addition to cost savings, it will protect some patients from overdiagnosis and false positives and possibly tissue damage from unnecessary treatments.”

Nancy Newman, M.D., also with Associates in OB/GYN, points out that we now have a vaccine against the most common forms of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is responsible for up to 70 percent of all cervical cancers. And co-testing for HPV with the Pap smear will identify women who may be at higher risk for cervical cancer. According to Dr. Newman, what a woman should do also depends on her personal history.

“These recommendations are always modified by a history of an abnormal Pap smear, a history of HPV infection, a history of smoking or the risk factor of a new partner,” she said. “The frequency of Pap smears is a decision that the patient and the physician will make together.”

I have already talked with my gynecologist about the new guidelines and I have the screenings he recommends. I want to encourage you to take charge when it comes to your own health and preventive screenings. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, an appropriate time to share these new recommendations with your women friends and schedule your annual visit. 

–Jackie Hays