Around 11,500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the US, according to the CDC.
Unlike many other cancers, cervical cancer is preventable and very treatable if caught early.
A Papanicolaou test, often called a pap smear, is a screening test for cervical cancer.
It helps healthcare workers detect cervical cancer early by looking for abnormal cancerous cells or cells that may become cancerous in the cervix.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is said to be the cause of over 99 percent of cervical cancers.
The virus is mainly transmitted during sexual activity. If that’s the case, do you need a pap smear if you’re not having sex?
We answer this and many other questions related to pap smears in this article.
Do you need a Pap smear if you’re not currently sexually active?
You need a pap smear regardless of whether you are currently sexually active or not.
Studies show that over 80 percent of sexually active women and over 90 percent of sexually active men get at least one HPV infection during their lifetime.
Up to half of all HPV infections are due to high-risk types of the virus that can cause cancer.
Your immune system clears away these infections most of the time, and they do not progress to cancer.
But, sometimes, your immune system cannot control these infections. Persistent infections, when left untreated, can cause cell changes that lead to cancer.
So, if you were sexually active in the past, there is a possibility that you contracted an HPV infection that your body could not clear out.
This is why it is important to get a pap smear to help detect any abnormal cells early.
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Do you need a cervical smear if you’re a virgin?
To many people, a virgin is someone who has never had penetrative sex. But, HPV is not only transmitted during penetrative sex. You can get the virus while still being a virgin in the traditional sense.
This is because HPV is not actually transmitted via bodily fluids like semen and vaginal fluid. It is transmitted via prolonged skin-to-skin or skin-to-mucosa contact.
And this can happen during various types of sexual activity, including oral sex, anal sex, fingering, intimate genital contact without penetration, etc.
So, if you’ve engaged in any form of sexual activity (penetrative or not) and you’re above 21 years of age, you need to start getting pap smears.
This is true even if you’ve been using protection. While wearing condoms reduces the risk of transmitting HPV, it doesn’t eliminate it.
If you’ve never had any form of sexual contact whatsoever, it is still a good idea to get screened because HPV can also be transmitted via non-sexual routes.
It is important to know that, while rare, cervical cancer can happen in the absence of HPV. Pap smears and other screening tests we currently have for cervical cancer cannot detect these rare types.
Pay attention to your body and seek medical attention if you notice any abnormal vaginal bleeding or persistent lower abdominal pain.
When it’s recommended to get a Pap test
It is recommended that women between the ages of 21 and 65 get regular pap smears every three years.
For women 25 to 29 years old, pap smears alone are recommended.
Both pap smears and HPV tests are recommended every five years for women who are 30 to 65 years old.
They can alternatively get only a pap smear every three years or only an HPV test every five years.
When you don’t need a cervical screening
You do not need a pap smear if:
- You are less than 21 years of age. This is because women under 21 years of age have a low risk of getting cervical cancer. They may have abnormal cells, but the risk of progressing to cervical cancer is low.
- You are older than 65 years of age, and you have had at least three previous negative pap smears or two HPV tests that were negative or normal.
- You have undergone surgical removal of your cervix or surgery that involves the removal of your entire uterus (total hysterectomy).
- You are pregnant. Cervical screening is not recommended until three months after you give birth because pregnancy may tamper with the results.
- You have had a recent miscarriage. You may want to wait up to three months after the miscarriage.
How often do females need a Pap smear?
A pap smear should be performed every three or five years, depending on your age. The reasons for this are:
- A Pap test is not 100 percent effective. A repeat test may help your doctor see precancerous lesions that were not seen before.
- Cervical cancer develops over a long period (10 to 15 years). Regular pap testing may help catch the abnormal cells in time before they develop into cancer. This allows for appropriate treatment to be done early.
If you have certain conditions, you may be at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. In that case, your doctor will need you to have more frequent pap tests. Examples of such conditions include:
- Being treated for cervical cancer in the past.
- Having an HIV infection or other conditions that bring your immune system down.
- Being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the womb. This can increase the risk of getting cervical cancer.
A pap smear is a test that is used to screen women for cervical cancer. It is a simple procedure that can be performed in the doctor’s office.
Cells are scraped off the cervix and then examined under a microscope to look for any abnormal cells that could lead to cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is mainly caused by HPV, which is mostly transmitted through prolonged skin-to-skin and skin-to-mucosa contact during sexual activity. This is why sexually active women need to get regular pap smear tests.
However, although HPV is an STI, it can be transmitted in other ways. So, women who have never had sex are also encouraged to get pap smears.