Trinity Salem Family Health Clinic

How A Pap Test Helps Prevent Cervical Cancer

Jan 02, 2024
How A Pap Test Helps Prevent Cervical Cancer
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which makes it the ideal time to educate yourself about the latest ways to protect yourself against this potentially deadly disease.

Thanks to Pap tests and vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV), cervical cancer deaths in the United States have declined by over 50 percent in the past 40 years

These modern-day tools can prevent up to 93% of cervical cancers. Even so, more than 12,000 women in our country still get cervical cancer annually, and 4,000 die from the disease.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, an opportunity that certified family nurse practitioner Yaminah Matthews, APRN, FNP-C, and her team at Trinity Salem Family Health Clinic, PLLC, in Waxahachie, Texas, are using to increase awareness about cervical cancer prevention. 

Read on to learn what every woman should know about preventing cervical cancer.

The importance of routine Pap smears 

A Pap smear, or Pap test, is a screening that detects abnormal changes in cervical cells before they develop into cancer. Women who regularly get Pap tests are unlikely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer, as a Pap test detects the earliest stage of abnormality.

Typically, you get a Pap smear with pelvic exams during your well-woman visit.

What does a Pap smear involve? 

Undressed from the waist down, you lie on an examination table with your feet in stirrups. Your provider gently inserts a tool called a speculum into your vagina, opening it just enough to see inside. Then, using a soft brush, your provider collects a few cells from the surface of your cervix. 

The procedure shouldn't hurt, but you might feel pressure or discomfort. The collected cells are then sent to a lab and examined under a microscope for abnormalities. The entire Pap smear usually takes only a few minutes.

Abnormal Pap smear results or positive HPV tests

Over 3 million women have abnormal Pap smear results each year. Yet, fewer than 1% get diagnosed with cervical cancer. In short, abnormal Pap smear results aren’t an immediate reason for panic. 

There are many possible causes for abnormal Pap smear results, including:

  • Having sex before your test
  • Using tampons before your test
  • Inflamed or infected cervix
  • Benign cervical growths, such as polyps
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI)
  • Cervical dysplasia or additional causes of abnormal cells 
  • Having HPV

If you receive abnormal results, your provider discusses the next steps, usually additional tests. And if you haven’t had the HPV vaccine, they may recommend getting it if you’re eligible. 

Understanding HPV

HPV is the most common STI. There are many different kinds of HPV. Some cause health problems, including genital warts and cancers. 

Some 80% of women get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lifetime. The virus typically spreads through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. 

Many women are unaware that they have HPV because it usually doesn’t cause symptoms and resolves on its own. 

Fortunately, there is an HPV vaccine that targets the types of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer and some cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and oropharynx. The vaccine also protects against the HPV variants that cause most genital warts.

HPV vaccination

The HPV vaccine is most effective when given before a person becomes sexually active. Sexually active people may have already been exposed to some of the HPV types that the vaccine targets.

Like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Trinity Salem Family Health Clinic team recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys aged 11 or 12. 

Since the introduction of HPV vaccination in 2006, infections caused by HPV, leading to most HPV-related cancers and genital warts, have significantly decreased. 

Condoms can help prevent some sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV transmission. But they don’t entirely prevent it. 

How often should I get a Pap and HPV test?

Women ages 21 and 65 should get Pap tests routinely. 

The frequency depends on your personal history and the results of your previous screenings. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommendations include the following general guidelines for women:

  • 21-29 years: Pap smear every three years
  • 30-65 years: Pap smear every 3-5 years
  • 66 years and older: Pap smear only needed with a history of abnormal results

Women with certain risk factors may need more frequent Pap smears. Risk factors include a history of cervical cancer, a weakened immune system, becoming sexually active at a young age, and having many sexual partners.

To book your well-woman exam, contact Trinity Salem Family Health Clinic in Waxahachie, Texas, today by calling us or using the online scheduling tool.