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1 year ago
NEED TO KNOW: New Pap Test Guidelines

New guidelines say you may need fewer pap tests if you’re healthy. But that doesn’t mean you should stop seeing your gyno regularly.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have released new guidelines surrounding pap and HPV (human papillomavirus) testing. Their recommendations:

- Women under age 21 are advised to postpone their first pap test until age 21.

-Women ages 21 to 29 that have had a healthy pap test at their last exam can wait three years before their next test.

-Women ages 30 to 65 are advised to request a pap test, as well as a test for the cancer-causing HPV virus. If both of those test results show no signs of trouble, it is recommended they wait five years for their next screening.

During your pap test, a doctor takes a sample of cells from the cervix, which is then sent to a lab for examination. If the sample is abnormal, your doctor may call you back for further testing. Abnormal cells may simply signify a small change in the cervix, but they could also be sign of pre-cancer, caused by a strain of HPV. If left untreated, pre-cancerous cells can develop into cervical cancer.

So why the call for fewer paps? Jennifer Ashton, MD, a New-Jersey based board-certified OBGYN and Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says these new guidelines stem from doctors’ increased understanding of how HPV impacts the body. While virtually all cervical cancer is caused by HPV, the process can take many years to develop. In most cases, the body can clear up the HPV virus on it’s own, and extra testing can put the patient at risk medically, emotionally and financially.

The recommendation for women under age 21 to skip pap tests is due to a high probability of false alarms, Ashton says. Because of the significant incidence of HPV in the teenage population, many of those early pap tests can come out abnormal. As a result, patients are subjected to extra testing, as well as unnecessary extra stress, even though a very small percentage of those abnormalities progress to pre-cancer of the cervix, she says. The same logic applies to the recommendation for fewer tests for women in their 20s.

Women in the 30 to 65 age group need to request an HPV test, because if infected at an early age, the virus has had more time to advance, says Ashton. More importantly, Ashton says women should request the high-risk test specifically. “More than 50 percent of doctors do low-risk HPV testing, which is unjustified, a waste of money, and potentially harmful to the patient,” she says. While pap tests look specifically at the cells of the cervix, high-risk HPV tests look at sign of infection in your DNA, says Ashton. For those reasons, women should make sure they receive both, she says.

Healthy and HPV-free? No need to cancel your gyno appointments just yet. If your lady doc is also your primary care physician, there are still reasons to schedule a yearly visit, says Ashton. “Your doctor can screen for other STDs, make sure you don’t have any problems with your period, check your blood pressure, and monitor breast health,” she says.

Get overwhelmed in the waiting room? Here’s how to get the most out of your next check up.

photo: altrendo images/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
More from WH:
Gyno 101: Prep for Your Next Visit
Everything You Need to Know About HPV
Can You Get HPV from Oral Sex?
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