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Death rates from cervical cancer have been declining because of successful screening for the disease in recent decades. How often should women get a Pap test?

Cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer) affects many women in their reproductive years. It is estimated that in the US, about 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer will occur annually and about 4,000 women will die from the disease. Although the rate of deaths from the disease has fallen in the past decades in the US, it is still one of the leading causes of deaths in women in middle- and low-income countries.

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Cervical cancer is often related to HPV (human papilloma virus) infection and both conditions often occur without symptoms. Taking a regular pap smear test is the best way to screen and diagnose these conditions. 

In fact, the reason why cervical cancer death rates have declined in the US is the increase in the use of pap test among women in their reproductive years.

However, women may ask, "How often do I need a pap test?"

What is a Pap Test?

Pap smear (named after Papanicolaou, the physician who discovered the procedure) is a test used to examine samples of cells taken from a woman’s cervix. The cells, which are smeared on a glass slide are studied by a pathologist to see if there are abnormalities such as infection or malignant (cancerous) changes in the cells.

The pap test is often done as a part of a regular gynecological check-up or as a diagnostic procedure to look for abnormalities in the cervix. It is usually performed by a physician during a pelvic exam with the woman lying on her back and her legs supported by stirrups in a gynecological clinic. The test is painless but some discomfort may be experienced during the pelvic exam when it is done for the first time.

Why is a Pap Test Done?

Cervical cancer affects many adult women in their reproductive years (approximately between 20 to 50 years of age) but it usually starts without any symptoms. There is a slow progression from normal cells to precancerous (abnormal) cells to cancerous and invasive growth of cells. This malignant growth affects the lower part of the uterus which serves as the opening to the vaginal canal. The risk of developing the disease is associated with factors such as:

  • human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

  • multiple sexual partners

  • early sexual contact

  • chronic cigarette smoking

  • use of birth control pills for more than five years

Read More: Will We Test for Cervical Cancer at Home?

Symptoms of cervical cancer usually include vaginal bleeding not associated with menstruation, abnormal vaginal discharge and pain. However, these symptoms are usually experienced only when the cancer is in the advanced stages. Furthermore, these symptoms may be disregarded or taken for granted as part of other conditions like bleeding after sexual intercourse or vaginal infection.

Regular pap test is therefore important for most sexually active women to screen for HPV infection, STDs and early changes or abnormalities in the cervix. This will help in the early treatment of any infection and prevent progression to the advanced stages of cervical cancer. It must be emphasized that the number of deaths from cervical cancer has dropped in recent years because of early detection and treatment owing to regular screening.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • ACS. Can Cervical Cancer be Prevented? http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervicalcancer/detailedguide/cervical-cancer-prevention
  • Saslow, D. Is a Pap Test Necessary Every Year? ACS. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/expertvoices/post/2012/03/14/is-a-pap-test-necessary-every-year.aspx#continue
  • ACS. What are the Key Statistics About Cervical Cancer?http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervicalcancer/detailedguide/cervical-cancer-key-statistics
  • WebMD. Cervical Cancer – Topic Overview. http://www.webmd.com/cancer/cervical-cancer/cervical-cancer-topic-overview
  • Photo by shutterstock.com
  • Photo courtesy of PAHO/WHO by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/pahowho/9401187761/
  • www.webmd.com www.cancer.org