Should You Have a Pap Smear Every Year?

Dr. Kristin Algoe, Sandpoint Women's Health

You may have seen your healthcare provider recently for your annual wellness exam, and they advised you that you no longer need a Pap test every year.  Some women are upset with this recommendation.  They feel they might miss a chance for early detection to discover something is wrong with their health before it becomes a larger problem.  Some women are more than happy to skip a yearly visit to their gynecologist.  Which take on this is right?  Let me help you learn a little more about the current recommendations for women’s health care and screening for medical issues.

“First of all, what is a ‘Pap’?”

This term has been tied to the women’s annual wellness visit for a long time, but in truth, it is just one aspect of a wellness exam.  A “Pap” is a test that was invented by Dr. Papanikolaou somewhere around 1930.  It is sometimes called a “Pap smear” because the sample collected is ultimately “smeared” on a microscope slide for a doctor specializing in pathology to look at.  Today this test is a tool to screen for cervical cancer.  The cervix is just one part of a women’s reproductive anatomy.  The test involves a small brush that collects a sample of cells from the cervix and this is done during a pelvic examination.

It is true that current recommendations support a Pap test for women at intervals longer than one year. Often, most women are recommended to have a Pap once every three or even every five years.  We have learned a lot about cervical cancer and how it may start and who is at greatest risk.  We have learned that cervical cancer is related to a virus called HPV or human papillomavirus.  These recommended screening intervals are based on strong evidence, and on each individual’s history, which helps identify and treat women at highest risk and helps prevent over-testing in women at lower risk.

“If I don’t need a Pap then should I have a yearly visit?”

Most experts say yes, and we absolutely agree, and there are several reasons why.  As we discussed, the Pap test is a screening test for just one cancer in one part of a woman’s body.  A yearly visit is a great time to check in with your healthcare provider and address many other opportunities to screen for disease.  You will likely discuss breast health and the right exams and/or imaging studies that can help decrease your risk for breast cancer.  You may discuss screening for heart disease or diabetes by looking at your blood pressure, your weight, your cholesterol levels, or your blood sugar level.  You may have a pelvic exam and this exam looks not just at the cervix, but also evaluates your uterus, your ovaries, your vagina, and vulva.  You may find an opportunity here to discuss your menstrual cycle or changes in your body that happen with menopause.  You may want to discuss any issues you are having with your sexual health, or any concerns you have with your reproductive health.  You can discuss screening and prevention of osteoporosis or of colon cancer.  You can discuss diseases that may run in your family.  You may have some time to just discuss being the healthiest self you can be.  This is a great opportunity and there are so many things that can be accomplished at an annual visit.  Don’t miss your chance!

Sandpoint Women’s Health at Bonner General Health offers routine wellness exams and many other gynecological services, click HERE for a list of the services we provide.

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