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Get Tested for Cervical Cancer

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The Basics

You can help prevent cervical cancer by getting regular screening tests (called Pap tests) and follow-up care. A Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) is done in a doctor’s office or clinic.

Most deaths from cervical cancer could be prevented by regular Pap tests. A Pap test can find abnormal (changed) cells before they turn into cancer. Pap tests can also find cervical cancer early, when it usually can be cured.

How often do I need to get tested?
Women ages 21 to 29 need a Pap test every 3 years.

Women ages 30 to 65 need to get screened every 3 or 5 years, depending on how they are tested. 

  • If your doctor or nurse gives you just a Pap test, get screened every 3 years.
  • If your doctor or nurse gives you a Pap test and an HPV test, get screened every 5 years.

If you are age 66 or older, ask your doctor if you need to get tested for cervical cancer.

What happens during a Pap test?
A Pap test lasts about 2 to 5 minutes. It may feel uncomfortable, but a Pap test doesn’t hurt.

While you lie on the exam table, the doctor or nurse will put a medical tool (called a speculum) into your vagina, opening it to see the cervix. She will use a special brush to collect a few cells from the cervix. These cells are sent to a lab to be checked by an expert.

The doctor or nurse will also do a pelvic exam to check the uterus, ovaries, and other organs.

Picture of a woman's lower reproductive organs including the fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vagina, and cervix. The cervix connects the uterus - or womb - to the vagina.
The cervix connects the uterus (or womb) to the vagina.

What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer of the uterine cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (or womb). The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina.

Abnormal cells in the cervix can turn into cancer if they aren’t found early and treated. Cervical cancer is most common in women over age 30.

Learn more about cervical cancer and screening:

Take Action!

Take these steps to help prevent cervical cancer.

Schedule your Pap test.
Call a doctor’s office or local health clinic to schedule your Pap test and pelvic exam.

What about cost?
Testing for cervical cancer is covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get tested at no cost to you.

For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit

Get ready for your Pap test.
Try to schedule your Pap test for a time when you won’t have your period. For 2 days before your test, doctors recommend that you don’t:

  • Use tampons
  • Have sex
  • Use birth control creams, foams, or jellies
  • Douche (rinse the vagina with water or other liquid)

Get help understanding your Pap test result.

Lower your risk of cervical cancer.
A major cause of cervical cancer is HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is one of the most common STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).

Some types of HPV can cause genital warts or anal cancer. Other types of HPV can cause cervical cancer.

You are at higher risk of getting HPV if you:

  • Started having sex before age 18
  • Have unprotected sex
  • Have many different sex partners
  • Have a sex partner who has other sex partners

Check out these Web sites for more information on HPV:

Get the HPV vaccine.
Doctors recommend that women age 26 and younger get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Find out more about the HPV vaccine.

Girls and boys can get the HPV vaccine, too. If you have kids, ask their doctor about the HPV vaccine.

Get your well-woman visit every year.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about other important screenings and services to help you stay healthy.

Learn about other important tests for women, like getting tested for breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.

Start Today: Small Steps

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Content last updated on: August 27, 2012

National Health Information Center

P.O. Box 1133, Washington, DC 20013-1133