Good News! Annual Pap Smears No Longer Needed

March 21, 2012  |  

For a lot of women, going to the gynecologist for a pap smear is one of the worst days of the year, but new recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force may allow you to cut down on trips.

The Task Force says women between the ages of 21 and 30 should now get a pap smear no more than every three years as long as they are screened for cervical cancer and tested for HPV during the exam. Women between 30 and 65 can stretch that frequency as far as five years, with women younger than 21 being told to skip the screening altogether.

The last time the Task Force put forth recommendations was in 2003, when they recommended women be tested at least every three years, which led many gynecologists to require annual screenings. Now, in a move to cut down on the number of women being treated for lesions that may heal on their own, the panel set this new standard. A potential downside, though, is that the increased length in between screenings could lead to a slight increase in the number of women who die from cervical cancer.

Dr. Michael LeFevre, co-vice chair of the task force and a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri at Columbia, calls the risk a trade-off. He says more frequent screenings may turn up more cancers and pre-cancerous lesions, but it also leads to more painful therapies for conditions that often disappear on their own.

Colposcopic examinations are often recommended for women who are dealing with lesions, and according to Dr. Alan Waxman, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, “It’s like a Pap test on steroids.”

In addition to the pain, excision of these lesions can also affect one’s fertility down the line. By screening less often, these lesions will have time to heal on their own without their detection being a cause for alarm, the panel says.

Despite these recommendations, Cosmo Radio health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider, says women should still see their gyno once a year. “The Pap smear is only part of your annual exam,” she said, noting women still need clinical breast exams annually and regular STD testing.

Dr. Thomas Randall, director of gynecologic oncology at Pennsylvania Hospital, isn’t sold on the panel’s recommendation either, saying more effort should be placed on finding less invasive treatments for lesions, rather than limiting their ability to be detected.

What do you think of this new recommendation? Would you be comfortable waiting three-five years for a pap smear or would you rather have an annual exam just to be safe?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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