What Tests Are Used to Screen for Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up. Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early.  Talk to your doctor about which tests are right for you, and how often you should have them.

Pap test. A Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers. These are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The Pap test is done in a doctor's office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.

  • If you are age 21 to 65 years, be sure to have a Pap test every three years.
  • Screening for cervical cancer is necessary even if you think you are too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore.

If you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, your doctor may tell you that you do not need to have a Pap test anymore.

HPV test.  A HPV (human papillomavirus) test looks for the high risk virus that can cause pre-cancers. The cells collected during the Pap test can also be tested for HPV at the laboratory. Talk with your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for you.

  • If you are age 30 to 65, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. When both tests are performed together, it is called co-testing. When both test results are normal, your doctor may then tell you that you can wait as long as five years for your next screening tests.

When you have a Pap test, the doctor may also perform a pelvic exam to check your uterus, ovaries, and other organs to make sure there are no problems. There are times when your doctor may perform a pelvic exam without giving you a Pap test. Ask your doctor which tests you are having, if you are unsure.

Do I need to prepare for a Pap test?

You should not schedule your Pap test for a time when you are having your period.

Beginning two days before a scheduled Pap test, do not:

  • douche (rinse the vagina with water or another fluid);
  • have sex;
  • use a tampon;
  • use a birth control foam, cream, or jelly; or
  • use a medicine or cream in your vagina.



Cervical Cancer Screening:

Clinical Summary of U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation

 The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Recommendations

 American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP)

The Maine CDC Breast and Cervical Health Program (MBCHP) obtained permission from the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP) to provide the following links:

The copyright of the algorithms, both on the ASCCP web site and in the original Journal of Lower Genital Tract Disease article, is owned by the ASCCP.