Getting regular screening tests (called Pap tests) and follow-up care can help prevent cervical cancer. You can get a Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) at your doctor’s office or clinic.
Most deaths from cervical cancer can be prevented if women get regular Pap tests. A Pap test can find abnormal (changed) cells before they turn into cancer. Pap tests can also find cervical cancer early, when it usually can be cured.
How often should I get screened (tested)?
How often you should get screened for cervical cancer depends on how old you are and which tests you get.
- If you are age 21 to 29, get a Pap test every 3 years.
- If you are age 30 to 65:
- Get screened every 3 years if you only have a Pap test.
- Get screened every 5 years if you have both a Pap test and an HPV (human papillomavirus) test.
If you are age 66 or older, ask your doctor if cervical cancer screening is recommended for you.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (or womb). The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina.
Abnormal cells in the cervix can turn into cancer if they aren’t found early and treated. Cervical cancer is more common in women over age 30.
Learn more about cervical cancer and screening:
- Cervical Cancer [PDF – 897 KB]
- Cervical Cancer Screening
What happens during a Pap test?
A Pap test takes about 2 to 5 minutes. It may feel uncomfortable, but a Pap test usually doesn’t hurt.
While you lie on the exam table, the doctor or nurse will put a medical tool (called a speculum) into your vagina and open it to see your cervix. The doctor or nurse will use a special brush to collect a few cells from your cervix. These cells are sent to a lab to be checked by an expert.
The doctor or nurse will also do a pelvic exam to check your uterus, ovaries, and other organs.
Take these steps to help prevent cervical cancer.
Schedule your Pap test.
Call a doctor’s office or local health clinic to schedule your Pap test and pelvic exam.
Get ready for your Pap test.
Try to schedule your Pap test for a time when you won’t have your period.
For 2 days before your test, doctors recommend that you don’t:
- Use tampons
- Have sex
- Use birth control creams, foams, or jellies
- Douche (rinse the vagina with water or other liquid)
Find out your Pap test results.
When you get a Pap test, ask the doctor how you will find out the results. Pap test results can be “normal,” “unclear,” or “abnormal.” Get help understanding your Pap test result.
Lower your risk of cervical cancer.
Long-term HPV (human papillomavirus) infections are a major cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a very common infection that can spread during sex.
Some types of HPV can cause genital and anal warts. Other types of HPV can cause cervical cancer and other cancers.
You are at higher risk of getting HPV if you:
- Started having sex before age 18
- Have unprotected sex
- Have many different sex partners
- Have a sex partner who has other sex partners
Check out these websites for more information on HPV:
- HPV Infection
- HPV and Genital Warts
Get the HPV vaccine.
Doctors recommend that women age 26 and younger get the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is given in 3 shots over 6 months. The shots protect against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. Find out more about the HPV vaccine.
Girls and boys need the HPV vaccine, too. If you have kids, ask their doctor about the HPV vaccine.
Get your well-woman visit every year.
During your visit, talk to the doctor or nurse about other important screenings and services to help you stay healthy.