Cervical cancer screening is used to find abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer. The main cause of cervical cancer is infection with HPV (Human Papillomavirus). Most of these infections will be suppressed by the immune system for 1 to 2 years without causing cancer. It can take 10 to 20 years or more for a persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type to develop into cancer.
Because cervical cancer has been proven to grow at such a slow rate, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention changed the interval for cervical cancer screening in 2010. Women should begin Pap testing at age 21, regardless of previous sexual history. Adolescents have a very low risk of cervical cancer and a high likelihood that cervical cell abnormalities will go away on their own. Women ages 21 through 29 should be screened with a pap test every 3 years. Women ages 30 through 65 can be screened every 5 years with Pap and HPV contesting or every 3 years with a Pap test alone. Further testing is implemented if the pap test results come back abnormal. Women who have had a hysterectomy do not need to have cervical screening, unless the hysterectomy was done to treat a precancerous cervical lesion or cervical cancer. Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still be screened for cervical cancer because the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV.
The changes to the PAP guidelines have decreased the amount of harm and invasive procedures caused by treating abnormalities that would never progress to cancer. The changes have also limited false-negative results that would delay diagnosis and treatment of a precancerous/cancer condition.