What’s new in cervical cancer prevention?

January 02, 2019 | by Samir Undevia, MD

It’s all about options in cervical cancer prevention. Thanks to a 2018 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendation, women over age 30 now have three options for being screened for cervical cancer: 

  • A Pap test only. If the results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
  • An HPV test only (primary HPV testing.) If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
  • An HPV test along with the Pap test (also called co-testing.) If your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.

Because most cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and can be prevented through early detection, the USPSTF believes evidence is strong enough that HPV tests can be used by themselves. Traditionally, women 30 and older had a Pap test every three years and co-testing every five years.

The only difference now is that women ages 30 and older can choose to get the HPV test alone every five years. The recommendations are a result of recent research suggesting that doing both tests at the same time leads to more unnecessary follow-up, rather than doing the HPV test on its own.

Pap smears are still recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 29. An HPV test isn’t recommended by itself for people under the age of 30 since HPV is very common in women younger than 30, and most young women are more likely to clear an HPV infection before there are any changes to cervical cells.

Because cervical cancer develops slowly and the risk factors can decrease as you get older, women over age 65 who have been previously screened in the past 10 years can stop cervical cancer screening, as long as they haven’t had any serious pre-cancer conditions, or if they had a total hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer.

What’s the difference between a Pap test and an HPV test?

Samples of tissue from a Pap test and an HPV test are still collected the same way. A Pap test looks for changes in your cervical cells that might lead to cervical cancer; an HPV test looks for strains of the virus that can cause these cell changes.

Is there anything I can do to prevent cervical cancer?

An HPV vaccine can be used to prevent infection with the types of HPV that are most likely to cause cancer, but the vaccine is most effective when given to children and teens. Besides having regular screenings, you can also decrease your risk for cervical cancer by

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
  • Limiting your number of sex partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who have had many partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with people who are obviously infected with genital warts or show other symptoms
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking harms all of your body’s cells, including your cervical cells. If you smoke and have HPV, you have a higher chance of developing cervical cancer.

How do I know what screening is best for me?

Since different organizations have different recommendations, it is important that you follow your doctor’s recommendations based on your individual risk factors, and get screened at regular intervals. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you and your health.

Learn more about cancer screenings at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blog:

5 reasons your tween should get the HPV vaccine


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