2 ways that Pap tests help save lives

Plus tips to feel more at ease with this vital screening

There are some things we do for ourselves because they matter — to our well-being, to our families, to our futures.

Pap tests definitely matter.

Thanks largely to testing, deaths from cervical cancer have dropped by more than half over the past 30-plus years.

These regular screenings offer twofold protection:

1. Pap tests help prevent cancer from developing.

If doctors find abnormal changes in the cervix, they may treat these changes before they turn into cancer.

2. Pap tests help find cancer early.

In its early stages, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

So even if a Pap test is not something you look forward to, it's a powerful way of saying, I'm worth it.

Who should be screened?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) advises most women ages 21 to 65 to be tested for cervical cancer. In some cases, an HPV test may be used together with or in place of a Pap test. That's because most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

It's a good idea to talk with your doctor about what's right for you.*

In general, the USPSTF recommends that:

Women 21 to 29 have a Pap test every 3 years.

Women 30 to 65 follow one of these guidelines:

  • A Pap test every 3 years
  • A high-risk HPV test every 5 years
  • A Pap test plus a high-risk HPV test every 5 years

Women older than 65 may be able to stop screening — if they've had routine results up until then.

Women who've had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix — and without a history of cervical cancer or precancerous lesions — may also stop screening.

Tips for a more comfortable visit.

Despite all that screening offers, some women may hesitate to get a Pap test. It's a very personal experience after all.

Still, there are ways to feel more at ease. To begin with, try to find a provider who helps you feel comfortable — someone who explains things and answers any questions you have.

It's OK to ask for a female doctor to do the test. And remember: Doctors see women of all ages, shapes and backgrounds.

A Pap test takes only a few minutes. While it may be briefly uncomfortable, it's rarely painful. Emptying your bladder before the test may help reduce discomfort. So can distracting yourself during it — say, by counting or taking deep breaths.

If a test shows any abnormalities, that doesn't necessarily mean it's cancer. Some cells may go back to normal on their own. Still, your doctor may advise more testing — or treatment — to help protect your health. 

What to do next

Looking for a doctor you're comfortable with? Start your search at myuhc.comOpens a new window®.

Let's talk about HPV vaccines.

Did you know? Males and females can both be immunized for the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) most likely to cause cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all preteen boys and girls ages 11 to 12 years get the vaccines. The shots are given in a series. To be protected, it's important to get them all.

Catch-up vaccines may be given to teens and some adults. Talk with your doctor to find out whether the vaccine is right for you or others in your family.

Additional sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Cancer Institute; Office on Women's Health.

*Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.