Employee & Community Health

Your first Pap test: When, why, how?

4/9/2018 by Dr. Marcie Billings

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One of the many changes in early adulthood is navigating your medical care on your own. As a female in your early twenties, there are a number of preventive services important to your overall health and well-being. 

Some of these preventive services are: Keeping your immunizations up to date, including the human papillomavirus (HPV), and yearly influenza vaccinations; monitoring your blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) every two years; lipid screening; sexually transmitted infections (STI) screening, if you're sexually active; and cervical cancer screening. 

When: Cervical cancer screening is recommended starting at age 21, regardless of your sexual history or HPV vaccination status. Screening before you turn 21 isn't recommended unless your immune system is compromised by an HIV infection, chronic immunosuppressant medication or an organ transplant. Screening for cervical cancer in your twenties should be done every three years. 

Why: Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most-common cancer in women. It most often is caused by HPV. HPV is the most-common STI, and at least 80% of sexually active individuals will be exposed to this virus in their lifetime. Two things can help prevent HPV-associated cervical cancer: 

  • HPV vaccination
  • Early detection with a Pap test

You can be vaccinated for HPV as early as age 9, but you also can get the vaccination any time up until you're 26. The HPV vaccine is highly effective and has minimal side effects. 

How: A Pap detects abnormal cervical cells before they cause cancer; it also can detect cells that already are cancerous. It's performed during a pelvic exam. Here's what to expect:

  • An instrument called a speculum is inserted into your vagina, which allows the provider to see the cervix and scrape some cells off with a brush and spatula — or a combination of the two. 
  • These cells are reviewed by the lab. The technician looks for changes that may be seen with abnormal cells, pre-cancer or cancer of the cervix. 
  • A Pap test takes only a few minutes and may be associated with some mild discomfort and spotting. 

As a young woman, you have endless opportunities! Please make staying healthy and keeping on track with your health care one of your top priorities for living the best life possible!

Dr. Marcie Billings is division chair of Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). Her primary areas of practice and special interest are pediatrics and adolescent care and medicine.