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The Low Down on Pap Smears

by Gina Colonette, sexual health blogger

When it comes to talking about cancer, people often want to be tested early to prevent it from growing. Pap smears are one of those tests. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ new guidelines, women no longer need yearly pap tests. As of fall 2009 the starting age for pap smears is now 21, no earlier, no later.

Just so we are clear on what a pap smear is—gynecologist perform pap smears during pelvic exams to collect cells from the cervix located at the top of the vagina, in turn helping to prevent cervical cancer. The new guidelines suggest women under 30 get a pap smear every two years.

The new guidelines are based on evidence found in research. The research showed that less frequent pap smear testing prevented cervical cancer just as well as yearly tests. The rates of women getting cervical cancer have changed over the years leading the ACOG to adjust the guidelines. Cervical cancer statistics show:

  • Cervical cancer rates have dropped 50 percent in the past 30 years.
  • Cervical cancer rates have fallen from 14.8 per 100,000 women in 1975 to 6.5 per 100,000 women in 2006.
  • Most cervical cancer deaths occurred because of infrequent testing or no testing at all.

Women ages 16-20 often acquire HPV infection soon after they have vaginal intercourse for the first time. The immune system usually clears the infection within two years, therefore women in that age group  aren’t usually affected by invasive cervical cancer. There are women who are at more of a risk for getting cervical cancer, who should be screened more often. Those women include:

  • Those infected with HIV.
  • Those who are immunosuppressed (due to renal transplant).
  • Those exposed to diethylstilbestrol (man-made estrogen) in utero.
  • Those treated for cervical intraepithelial CIN 2, CIN 3 or cervical cancer.

If you are concerned about your cervical health, talk to your doctor and see if you are a candidate for early screening. Otherwise, relax, no need to worry about cervical cancer until it is necessary. For more information on cervical health, go to the ACOG’s website.