Cervical cancer is one of few types of cancer that is almost entirely preventable with the right screenings. However, 14,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4,000 women die from it. One key reason for this trend is that women are delaying screening on a widespread level. One online survey of women ages 18-64 found that 71% of women had delayed getting a Pap test. Hispanic and Black women are disproportionally affected by this trend.

Should You Have a Pap Test?

A Pap test is a screening that takes place during a pelvic exam. A small sample of cervical tissue is taken to look for the presence of precancerous cell changes. This test may be accompanied by an HPV test, which screens for the human papilloma virus, which is the most common cause of cervical cancer. HPV is spread through sexual contact, and it is the most common sexually transmitted infection, in part because it also has no noticeable symptoms.

Women should begin having Pap tests at age 21. If your test results are normal, you may not need another screening for five years. If you have only a Pap test without an HPV test and have normal results, you can wait three years until your next screening.

If you do not have health insurance or have a low annual income, you may be eligible for free or reduced cost screenings through the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP).

What Else Can You Do?

While screening is a vital step in cervical cancer prevention, there are other steps you can take to limit your exposure to HPV, which will in turn reduce your risk for cervical cancer. Wearing a condom during intercourse can reduce the risk of HPV infection—although condoms do not provide comprehensive HPV protection. Additionally, the HPV vaccine, which protects against the strains of the virus most associated with cervical cancer, can be administered in preteens as young as 9 years old and in adults up to 26 years of age. The vaccine can be safely given after age 26 as well, but it has less benefit to adults as they get older due to a larger chance of previous exposure to the virus. Avoiding tobacco use is another vital step in cervical cancer prevention.

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