Screening for cervical cancer is an important part of every woman’s health routine. For many years, the primary test for cervical cancer was the Pap test or Pap smear. In recent years, testing for high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) has been added as a second option.
Which test is right for you? The answer may be both.
The cervix is the part of a woman’s reproductive system that is the opening to the womb. Cervical cancer is a typically slow-growing cancer that may take 10 to 15 years to develop.
Many women with cervical cancer do not have any symptoms until their cancer is in an advanced stage. With regular testing that can provide early detection and treatment, cervical cancer is the most preventable type of female cancer.(2)
A Pap test or Pap smear looks at cells from the cervix to see if cancer cells are present. During your annual exam, your gynecologist will remove a small number of cells from your cervix and send them to the lab to be tested.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all women should get regular Pap tests beginning at age 21.
The HPV test also looks at cells that your doctor has removed from your cervix. But instead of looking for actual cancer cells, the HPV test looks for the human papillomavirus. If HPV is present, it can cause changes in the cells of your cervix that could turn into cancer.
The HPV test is recommended for women over age 30. For those women, a positive HPV test may mean you are at higher risk for developing cervical cancer.
HPV is very common in younger women. In most cases, the body fights off HPV just like it fights off many other types of viruses. So HPV in younger women is not considered very likely to cause them future health problems.
Which test is better?
Some researchers question the accuracy of the HPV test, stating that the test is too new. They also cite concerns that the availability of the HPV vaccine will dramatically reduce the number of women who have HPV in the future, making the test less relevant.