There are fewer preventative visits a woman detests more than the dreaded Pap smear (a close second is most likely a mammogram, and third would likely be that “puff of air” into your eyes). So, you are in good company when you groan after remembering today is “that wellness visit.” With that said, let’s discuss why we put you through this emotional and physical discomfort.
First, we want to catch any concerns early. Generally, it is easier to treat illness in the early stages, instead of waiting until it is widespread. Some of you may remember when it was recommended that we did annual Pap smears. If you remember those, you are probably wondering if my previous statement is contradictory to our screenings. Surprisingly, it is not. When we did yearly Pap smears, we found we did a lot of unnecessary testing for false positives. (That means you test positive for something concerning, but upon further examination, we find out it was nothing.) Sometimes the body can clear abnormal cells and viruses when given time, hence the birth of our newer guidelines.
Now, what are we looking for with Pap smears? Besides being able to literally look for any abnormalities, we take samples of cells from the cervix looking for two major things. First, abnormal cells (aka cancer). Like I said, some cells we just monitor. With these results, we may do nothing. We may choose to repeat the test in one year to monitor if the body has cleared these out without intervention, or we may need to do further testing. Your provider will be able to explain why they go in one direction or the other. Second, we are also looking for HPV (Human Papillomavirus). HPV has several different strains, but there are some linked to cervical cancer. If you test positive for high-risk HPV, most likely, we will encourage further testing. Again, let’s catch and treat it early.
Finally, what are the guidelines? For normal Pap smears, women between 21-30 years old are recommended to have a Pap smear every three years, despite what age they became sexually active. For women who are in a committed, monogamous relationship, and have low-risk factors, we recommend a Pap smear every three to five years. For those 30-65, we recommend having a PAP/HPV test every five years.
Just remember, every woman dreads “Pap Smear Day.” However, no one ever regrets catching and treating problems early.
Emily Dunn, FNP
Canyon View Family Medicine