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Medical Minutes: Answers to frequently asked questions

Pap Tests

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Meg Sheahan


Question:  Ms. Sheahan, I know I am supposed to come in regularly for my Pap test, but to be honest, I really don’t understand what it is or why it’s important.  Can you explain?


Answer: Pap tests detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix.


The pap test (also called cervical cancer screening) detects pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix among women.  With detection, pre-cancerous cells can be easily treated. Pap tests can also detect cancer at an early stage.  Early detection of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells allows women to receive highly effective treatment before cancer has a chance to develop or progress.  The Pap test is recommended for all women starting at 21 years of age.  Your age and the results of previous tests will determine how frequently you should have a pap test.


A separate test that looks for certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) is often done along with the pap test.  The human papillomavirus is a very common sexually transmitted infection.  Some types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer in women, as well as other types of cancers in both men and women.  These types of HPV usually do not have symptoms.


Pre-cancerous and cancerous cells may not cause symptoms.

Because of the pap test, cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent.  Cervical cancer is highly curable when detected and treated early.  It is very important to go for regular pap tests even when we have no problems because early cervical cancer may not show any signs or symptoms.


You can reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

There are ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.  You can reduce the risk of cervical cancer by: 

•    Seeing your health care provider regularly for your pap test starting at age 21

•    Following up with your health care provider as they advise if your pap test results come back abnormal

•    Getting the HPV vaccine for yourself and/or your kids.  The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer.  The vaccine is recommended for preteens (boys and girls), but can be given from 9-26 years of age.

•    Don’t smoke

•    Use condoms during sex, as HPV is sexually transmitted

•    Limit your number of sexual partners

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