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Pap Tests: When you need them and when you don’t

A Pap test is a test of cells of the cervix. The cervix is the opening between the vagina and the uterus. The Pap test looks for cells that are not normal and can cause cervical cancer.

Most women ages 21 to 69 need regular Pap tests. But teenage girls and older women usually don’t need them. Here’s why:

Pap tests usually don’t help low-risk women.

Many women have a very low risk for cervical cancer.

Pap tests can have risks.

A Pap test can be uncomfortable and cause a little bleeding.

The test may show something that does not look normal but would go away on its own. Abnormal results cause anxiety. And they can lead to repeat Pap tests and follow-up treatment that you may not need.

So, when do I need a Pap test?

That depends on your age, your medical history, and your risks.

How can you protect yourself against cervical cancer?

The best way to protect yourself against cervical cancer is to protect yourself against human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.

Get the HPV vaccine. Girls should get the vaccine when they are 11 or 12. It is given in three shots over six months. Girls and women ages 13 to 26 should get the vaccine if they have not yet had it.

Limit your sexual partners. The fewer partners you have, the lower your risk of getting HPV.

Don’t smoke. The risk of developing cervical cancer increases with the length of time a woman smokes and the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

Take these steps to make your Pap test as accurate as possible.