Health A-Z

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What It's Used For

The Pap test is an important screening procedure for cervical cancer. It is used primarily to detect abnormal, precancerous changes that may develop into cervical cancer unless treated. In some cases, the Pap test also will detect cancerous (malignant) cells before cervical cancer becomes visible to the naked eye, and before cancer has spread beyond a localized area.

Women at average risk of cervical cancer should begin regular Pap testing at age 21. Pap smears should be done every three years in women ages 21 to 65. For women ages 30 to 65, another option is screening with both human papilloma virus (HPV) testing and a Pap smear every five years.

More frequent Pap tests may be recommended for women who have a higher risk of cervical cancer because of any of these risk factors:

  • A history of sexual intercourse at an early age

  • Multiple sex partners

  • Smoking

  • A history of infection with certain human papilloma viruses

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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