What age should I start getting a Pap smear?

Many young patients have questions about Pap smears and pelvic exams. When is it time to start getting a Pap smear?

Many young patients have questions about Pap smears and pelvic exams. When is it time to start getting a Pap smear? Here’s what to expect, why an OB/GYN visit is important and how often you should have one. Gynecologists recommend a Pap smear starting at age 21.

What is a Pap smear test?

A Pap smear (or Pap test) checks for cervical cancer and/or human papillomavirus (HPV). A Pap test can detect abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer. A Pap smear is a very brief test and involves brushing a tool against the cervix. This sample of cells is then tested for abnormalities.

What age should you start getting a Pap smear?

Patients should get their first Pap smear at age 21. This test should occur every three years for ages 21 to 29. Those ages 30 to 65 should have a Pap test every three to five years.

“If you are younger than 21, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says you do not need this type of screening,” said Amy E. Farrell, M.D., OB/GYN with Norton Women’s Care.

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What is a pelvic exam?

A pelvic exam consists of a physical exam of the outer and inner portions of your pelvic organs, including the vulva, vagina, cervix and uterus.

After your provider looks at your external genitals, they will insert a tool, called a speculum, into your vagina, which opens the vaginal walls enough to see the cervix. This is when a Pap test happens if it is needed. Afterward, your provider will check your uterus and ovaries by inserting a gloved finger (or two) into the vagina while palpating your abdomen.

How often you should get a pelvic exam?

A pelvic exam is not the same thing as a Pap smear. Although they commonly occur during the same visit, both tests are not a requirement for every appointment. They serve as important ways to keep you healthy, including prevention of certain medical conditions and screening for cancer.

A pelvic exam is required if you are experiencing symptoms, such as pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding, or pain during sex. A pelvic exam also is necessary if you are pregnant or have a history of gynecologic conditions.

According to ACOG, a pelvic exam is not necessary — unless certain symptoms are present or there is a risk of specific conditions — but a patient and provider should make this decision together.

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