How Often Do You Really Need a Pap Smear?

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on August 3, 2017

How often do you really need a Pap smear?

The guidelines for the test have changed in recent years, and they take into account your age, medical history and other factors.

“We don’t routinely do annual screenings any more,” said Heather Greer, M.D., a Carilion Clinic obstetrician and gynecologist.

It is now recommended that women start getting a Pap smear at age 21 and then have one every three years, depending on their test results.

“A woman who has had three consecutive normal Pap smears by age 30 followed by normal HPV co-testing can then go every five years between tests,” Dr. Greer said. “This applies to patients who are low-risk—who have had no new exposure to HPV and whose immune systems aren’t compromised.”

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection that can increase the chances of developing cervical and other cancers. It is common worldwide. According to Dr. Greer, women who are deemed to be low-risk can keep getting the Pap smear every five years until they turn 65, and if their results are still normal, can then discontinue it.

"We do still want to see our patients every year throughout their lives for a routine pelvic exam, though,” Dr. Greer noted. "This will screen for other potential health problems."

What if you have an abnormal Pap smear? Or are diagnosed with cervical cancer? Your doctor would advise you to be tested based on your individual risk factors.

“The American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology has many algorithms in place that guide how often women with abnormal results should be screened,” said Dr. Greer.   

What hasn’t changed? Agreement that early detection is a good way to safeguard your health.
Learn more about the health screenings every woman needs