If you are a female over the age of 21 you likely have had the uncomfortable experience of going to either your family physician or OB/GYN and being told you need a PAP smear. But, how much do you know about this important screening test? Have you ever asked “What is the point of a PAP smear?”
A PAP smear, short for Papanicolaou smear, is a test that is used to detect both cancerous and precancerous changes of the narrow opening of the uterus known as the cervix. A PAP smear is a light scraping of the cervix done to collect cells for examination under a microscope. It can help us identify both cancerous and precancerous changes. PAP smears are also used to determine if a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) is present, which is important to know since this virus is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV can be divided into both “high-risk” and “low-risk” categories. The “low-risk” subtypes cause genital warts. The “high-risk” subtypes are responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer, but can also cause cancer of the mouth, throat, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis. Although most people’s immune system will naturally clear HPV within 2 years of exposure, sometimes the body cannot get rid of the virus. Approximately 10% of women exposed to HPV will develop long-lasting infections which put them at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
While cervical cancer was previously the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States, the number of cases has drastically decreased due in large part to women undergoing regular screenings. Nonetheless, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between the years 2013-2017 more than 20,000 women died in the US from cervical cancer.
So, what can a woman do to prevent cervical cancer?
- Get vaccinated: The CDC recommends routine HPV vaccination for both males and females at age 11 or 12, but can be routinely administered until age 26. The vaccine prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat already existing infections.
- Get screened: Screening guidelines vary by age and should be discussed in detail with your doctor, but ALL females should begin receiving regularly scheduled PAP smears at age 21 regardless of sexual activity.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month so start the new year by talking to your family physician about this important topic! It might save your life.