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How a Pap Smear Can Save Your Life

Jan 23, 2023
How a Pap Smear Can Save Your Life
If you’re like most women, getting a Pap smear probably isn’t at the top of your list of favorite things. However, this important screening protects your health and could even save your life. Here’s what you need to know.

Happy New Year from the team at Triad Internal Medicine! We know that if you’re like most women, getting a Pap smear probably isn’t at the top of your favorite things. However, this important screening protects your health and could save your life—and National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is the perfect time to learn how!

Our board-certified providers offer Pap smears as part of our comprehensive women’s health services at our Asheboro, North Carolina, location. Keep reading to learn how this simple test works and why it’s so important for your health. 

What is a Pap smear and how is it life-saving?

Pap smears are simple health screenings that involve a quick swab of your cervix. Your provider then sends the collected cells to a laboratory for analysis to look for abnormalities, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), cervical dysplasia, and cervical cancers. 

One of the issues for which your provider screens you is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common virus with hundreds of different strains. It’s also the most common sexually transmitted infection across the globe, but not all strains of HPV are transmitted sexually. 

Some strains of HPV don’t cause any symptoms. Others cause non-threatening symptoms, like warts on your hands, feet, or face. But around 40 HPV strains spread via skin-to-skin sexual contact

Sexually transmitted HPV is classified as either low-risk or high-risk HPV. Low-risk HPV typically doesn’t cause any symptoms, although it can sometimes trigger genital warts, which is a frustrating but non-life-threatening condition.  

High-risk HPVs, on the other hand, get their name because they can cause cancer, especially cervical cancer. When high-risk HPV strains do cause symptoms, it’s because the disease has entered the latter stages. 

Over 14,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Although the most common high-risk HPV-related cancer is cervical cancer, it can also lead to other cancers, including cancers in the vulva, vagina, anus, penis, and throat.

Since high-risk HPV doesn’t trigger symptoms until the latter stages, a Pap smear can save your life since it uncovers HPV. This way, you can get treatment in the earliest stages, when it’s most treatable.  

When should I get a Pap smear?

Getting a Pap smear regularly should be part of your preventive screening routine if you’re between 21-65. However, “regularly” doesn’t mean you need a Pap smear every year. 

Every woman’s Pap smear schedule depends on your personal health history and the results of any previous screenings. At Triad Internal Medicine, our providers follow the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommendations, which are: 

  • Women 21-29 years: Every three years
  • Women 30-65 years: Every three to five years
  • Women 66 years and older: Only if there’s a history of abnormal results

It’s important to remember these are only guidelines, and you might need a Pap smear more often. For example, if you get abnormal results, your provider could order an additional test the following year.  

What happens if my Pap smear is abnormal?

If your Pap smear results are abnormal, you don’t need to panic. Over 3 million women receive abnormal results each year, but fewer than 1% of these women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Other causes of abnormal results include: 

  • Having sex or using tampons before your screening
  • An inflamed or infected cervix
  • Benign cervical growths (e.g., polyps)
  • Sexually transmitted infections or diseases (STDs)
  • Cervical dysplasia or other conditions that cause abnormal cells 

You could also get abnormal results if you test positive for HPV, which means you have one of the high-risk strains of HPV. However, testing positive for HPV doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. 

If your Pap smear shows abnormal results, your Triad Internal Medicine provider might order additional tests to determine the cause. If you test positive for HPV, your provider could also suggest a follow-up HPV test the following year to see if the infection resolved on its own or if further treatment is needed.  

Have more questions about how a Pap smear can save your life? Schedule an appointment online or over the phone with a provider at Triad Internal Medicine in Asheboro, North Carolina.