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The New Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines

The New Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines

Women can now test for HPV during their gynecological exam.

On an episode of the controversial show Girls, Hannah finds out she’s contracted HPV. When she tells her friend Shoshanna, Shoshanna says, “Jessa has HPV, like a couple different strands of it. She says all adventurous women do.”

While it’s true that infection with some strain of HPV is almost universal among folks who are sexually active—more than 79 million Americans are carrying a strain of the virus—testing for it hasn’t been part of a regular gynecological exam until now.

Women have relied on a Pap smear every three years from age 21 to check for cervical dysplasia (pre-cancerous cell changes) and cervical cancer (usually caused by an HPV infection). But now, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says evidence confirms that women over 30 can get an HPV test, which looks for the virus itself, instead of a Pap smear, and can safely wait five years between tests if they want to. Women 21 to 30 should still continue to get a Pap smear every three years—and skip the HPV testing.

The recommendations also say women over 65 and those who have had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix, who have had previous clear tests and aren’t otherwise at high risk for cervical cancer, can stop getting tested altogether.

If you have HIV or a compromised immune system, or were previously treated for a high-grade precancerous lesion or cervical cancer, you’re at a higher risk for cervical cancer and should talk to your doc about an individualized screening plan.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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