Protect Yourself Against Cervical Cancer With Regular Pap Tests

Jan 02, 2024
Protect Yourself Against Cervical Cancer With Regular Pap Tests
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a prime opportunity to learn the best ways to protect yourself from this largely preventable disease that still takes 4,000 women’s lives annually in the United States.

Pap tests and vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV) have saved countless women's lives. Cervical cancer used to be among the leading causes of cancer deaths among women in our country. But thanks to these tools, cervical cancer deaths in the United States dropped 50% in the past 40 years.

They can prevent 93% of cervical cancers. Even so, more than 12,000 women in the United States still get cervical cancer every year, and 4,000 die from the disease.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, giving the medical providers at Primary & Urgent Care South, with locations in Warrior, Alabama, or Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, a chance to raise awareness about cervical cancer prevention.

Read on as they explain what every woman should know about preventing cervical cancer.

The importance of routine Pap smears

A Pap smear, or Pap test, is a screening that detects abnormal changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer. Women who regularly get Pap tests are highly unlikely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer, as a Pap test finds abnormalities at the earliest stage.

Usually performed during well-woman visits, Pap smears involve lying undressed from the waist down on an examination table with your feet in stirrups. Your provider gently inserts a tool called a speculum into your vagina, opening it just enough to see inside. Then, using a soft brush, your provider collects a few cells from the surface of your cervix.

The procedure shouldn't hurt, but you might feel pressure or discomfort. The entire Pap smear usually takes only a few minutes. The cells collected are then sent to a lab and examined under a microscope for any abnormalities. 

About abnormal Pap smear results or positive HPV tests

Over 3 million women have abnormal Pap smear results each year. Yet, fewer than 1% get diagnosed with cervical cancer. In short, abnormal Pap smear results aren’t an immediate reason for panic.

There are many possible causes for abnormal Pap smear results, including:

  • Having sex before your test
  • Using tampons before your test
  • Inflamed or infected cervix
  • Benign cervical growths, such as polyps
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI)
  • Cervical dysplasia or other causes of abnormal cells
  • Having HPV

If you get abnormal results, your provider will discuss the next steps, usually additional tests. Haven’t had the HPV vaccine? Your provider may recommend that you get it if you’re eligible.

Understanding HPV

HPV is the number one sexually transmitted infection. There are many different kinds of HPV. Some cause health problems, such as genital warts and cancers. Others are asymptomatic.

About 80% of women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lifetime. The virus typically spreads through vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

Many women are unaware that they have HPV, given that the virus usually doesn’t cause symptoms and goes away on its own.

Fortunately, there is an HPV vaccine that targets the types of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer and some cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and oropharynx. The vaccine also protects against the HPV variants that cause most genital warts.

HPV vaccination

To receive the most benefit from the HPV vaccine, get it before you become sexually active. This is because sexually active people may have already been exposed to some of the HPV types the vaccine targets.

Like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the team at Primary & Urgent Care South recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys aged 11 or 12.

Since the introduction of HPV vaccination in 2006, infections caused by HPV, leading to most HPV-related cancers and genital warts, have significantly decreased.

Condoms can help prevent some sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV transmission. But they don’t entirely prevent it.

How often should I get a Pap and HPV test?

Women ages 21 and 65 should get Pap tests routinely.

The frequency depends on your personal history and the results of your previous screenings. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has made the following recommendations, including these general guidelines for women:

  • 21-29 years: Pap smear every three years
  • 30-65 years: Pap smear every three to five years
  • 66 years and older: Pap smear only necessary if there is a history of abnormal results

Women with certain risk factors may need more frequent Pap smears. Risk factors include a history of cervical cancer, a weakened immune system, becoming sexually active at a young age, and having many sexual partners.

To book your well-woman exam, call us, use our online booking tool, or walk into one of our locations. We have offices in Warrior, Alabama, and Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.