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How Often Is a Pap Smear Needed?

When you go in to get your Pap smear, the procedure may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. A nurse will have you disrobe from the waist down and will usually come back into the room with the doctor for the exam. The doctor will use a speculum to keep your vagina open so that she can take a sample. The Pap smear should be over in a few seconds.

Detects Cervical Cancer

The Pap test can detect cancer or can detect the abnormal cells that may lead to cancer. Early detection is key when it comes to cervical cancer. The Pap test can also detect infections and inflammations, according to the National Cancer Institute. Your doctor will use a cotton swab, brush or a wooden scraper to take a sample from your cervix or from your vaginal cells, where technicians analyze the sample in a lab.

How Often do You Get One

How often you need to get a Pap smear depends on your situation and your doctor’s recommendation. So, you should definitely discuss this with your doctor the next time you go in. The guidelines, according to the National Cancer Institute, say that women should have a Pap test at least once every three years. Testing should begin about three years after a woman becomes sexually active or by age 21.

When to Start

Cervical cancer develops slowly in most cases; that is why a test only once every three years is sufficient. Also, cervical cancer is extremely rare in women under 25, according to the National Cancer Institute. The Family Doctor website recommends that women start getting a Pap test once a year until they have three normal ones in a row. At that point, women can switch to getting them once every three years. Your doctor’s recommendations always trump guidelines, so if you doctor wants you to go in more often, discuss the reasons and listen to him.

When to End

You should continue to get regular Pap smears even after you have gone through menopause. When you reach age 65 or 70, and have been having normal Pap results for 10 years, you may want to talk to your doctor about stopping the Pap tests. You also do not need to have the Pap test anymore if you have had a hysterectomy, unless you had the hysterectomy because of cancer or the discovery of precancer cells.


The National Cancer Institute estimates that, as of 2009, doctors and clinics in the United States perform about 55 million Pap smears a year. Of those, about 6 percent require a follow-up. If your test does come back as abnormal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cancer. In fact, it rarely means that. Sometimes, cells just appear to be abnormal for a variety of reasons, such as dysplasia or atypical squamous cells. In those cases, the doctor will want to repeat the test. Often, the second test will come back as being normal.

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