Last month the United States Proventative Services Task Force along with a slew of other health authorities released new recommendations concerning the Pap smear. The Papanicolaou test (Pap smear) is simply a screening tool that detects subtle changes in the cells of your cervix. These cellular changes may be an indication of pre-cancerous cells. The new guidelines suggest that a Pap smear isn’t necessary until a woman becomes 21 years of age, regardless of sexual activity. Woman between the ages of 21-65 years old should have a Pap smear every 3 years to adequately screen for possible cervical cancer. If you are between the ages of 30-65 years old and want to further increase the interval of screening, the USPSTF recommends that you have a Pap smear and HPV testing every 5 years.
These new guidelines may have given many women the misconception that an annual woman’s wellness visit is no longer necessary. This is simply untrue. A wellness visit is important because it gives you an opportunity to touch bases with your healthcare provider, discuss any recent changes in your health, update immunizations if necessary, get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, get your breast examination, and discuss contraception options/refills, among other things. If the thought of stirrups makes you uncomfortable ask the provider if you can place your feet flat on the table and sit in a more upright position. Studies have shown that this is a more comfortable position for the patient and doesn’t compromise the provider’s ability to perform the exam.
Keep in mind that the new Pap smear guidelines apply to all healthy women with a cervix. If you are immunocompromised (have HIV or in a similar situation), have been previously diagnosed with cervical cancer, or a high grade precancerous cervical lesion, you may require more frequent monitoring and should consult with your OB/GYN or Women’s Health Nurse Practitoner.