Why you should get routine Pap smears

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer-associated deaths in women in the United States. But since the introduction of routine Pap smears, both the number of cervical cancer deaths and the number of cervical cancer cases have decreased significantly (1).

What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear (or Pap test) is conducted by a doctor to check for abnormalities in the cervix. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to widen it and allow the doctor to gently collect cells from the cervix using a small brush. The whole process only takes a few minutes and doesn’t usually cause any pain. The collected cells are then examined under a microscope to check for cervical cancer or cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer (2).

Are there other tests to detect cervical cancer early?
More than 99% of cervical cancer cases are linked to a persistent infection with one of the high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) genotypes. And these infections can be simply detected by lab analyses of a cervical swab; hence why HPV testing is an alternative option to screen for cervical cancers at an early stage (4).

For more information about HPV testing and cervical cancer, see our previous articles:

How often should I get a Pap smear and HPV test?
The CDC recommendations for Pap smear frequency are:

  • Start getting Pap smears at 21 years of age
  • 21–29 years of age: Get a Pap smear every three years
  • 30–65 years of age: There are three options for this age bracket:
    • A Pap smear every three years
    • An HPV test every five years
    • Co-testing (HPV test + Pap smear) every five years
  • Older than 65 years of age: Screening is no longer usually necessary.

These recommendations are assuming that each Pap smear or HPV test is returning normal results. If there are any abnormalities or other risk factors (e.g., immunocompromised), more frequent testing and other procedures may be required (3).

Can I take an HPV test from home?
Although Pap smears require a visit to the doctor, HPV testing is now available from a self-collected cervical swab, such as our at-home HPV test available here.

After ordering an HPV test, the testing kit will be promptly mailed to you. The test kit contains all the instructions and supplies required for collection. The cervical swab sample can be painlessly collected in the privacy of your own home and only takes a few minutes. The sample is then mailed back to our laboratory for a very accurate, fully automated analysis that detects nucleic acids from the 14 high-HPV genotypes that are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.

1. Cervical Cancer Statistics. (Reviewed June 2021). CDC.
2. Pap smear. NIH, National Cancer Institute.
3. What should I know about screening? (Reviewed Jan 2021). CDC.
4. Cervical Cancer. WHO.