This article is part of a series of information in response to the COVID-19 crisis and is valid through June 2020.
Many health maintenance services are on hold right now as we all shelter in place. You may be wondering how worried you should be about certain health care services that you’re having to skip, and one of those may be a pap smear.
Pap smears are an essential part of women’s health screenings because they can help detect changes to the cells on your cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the 4th most deadly cancer for women in the US, behind breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer. It is important to continue being screened for cervical cancer as you age because more than 20% of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65.
All of this being said, the way we screen for cervical cancer has actually changed over the last 5 years. Many women are not aware that they no longer need an annual exam if they have a history of normal pap smears in the past. Rather, the current recommendation is that women get screened every 3-5 years or sooner. And this, of course, affects the answer to our question. For women with a history of normal pap smears, there’s no need to worry about the delay in screening.
Women who have had an abnormal pap test and who are being followed differently have slightly more urgency in getting repeat pap smears completed. But even here, the data shows that in healthy women, abnormal cells are likely to resolve without intervention.
In fact, if you have had a recent abnormal pap test and were scheduled for a procedure like a biopsy or a colposcopy, this can usually wait a few months, too. While these tests are important or even urgent, we know that these cell changes evolve slowly and most women are not at risk for serious changes to their cervical cells in a short amount of time.
On the flip side, if you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer and are currently undergoing treatment, that care will likely fall under the category of important medical services and will not have to be interrupted.
Most women will have an abnormal pap test at some point in their lives, and most abnormal pap tests will resolve without treatment. Screening plays an important role in identifying abnormal cervical cells and watching them over time to make sure they heal on their own.
So, please get your pap smear done eventually, but don’t worry if there is a delay for a few months. The most important thing is that you get it done and keep doing it every 3-5 years or sooner, based on your provider’s recommendations and your personal health history.
Arbyn, M., Bruni, L., et. al. Estimates of incidence and mortality of cervical cancer in 2018: a worldwide analysis VOLUME 8, ISSUE 2, PE191-E203, FEBRUARY 01, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30482-6
American Cancer Society. Key statistics for cervical cancer. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2020. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2020. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/about/key-statistics.html#references
Cervical Cancer: Screening. US Preventative Task Force. August 21, 2018 https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/cervical-cancer-screening