When should I be screened for cervical cancer?

A woman

Our recommendation

If you’ve ever been sexually active, you should start having regular Pap tests by the time you’re 21. You’ll need a Pap test every 1 to 3 years, depending on your previous test results.

Even if you have stopped having sex, you should continue to have a Pap test. If you’ve had a hysterectomy, talk to your doctor about whether you may still need a Pap test.

Women at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be tested more often and at an earlier age than women with average risk.

A woman

How do I know if I am at high risk for cervical cancer?

All women should follow the screening guidelines for cervical cancer and talk to their doctor about when they should have screening tests.

Some women have a higher than average risk of developing cervical cancer. You may be at higher risk if you have:

  • a weakened immune system
  • been exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
  • constant infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • genital warts that are long-standing or difficult to treat
  • cancers related to HPV such as cancer of the anus or vulva
Patient reviewing test results with their doctor

Talk to your doctor about your risk. If you are at higher than average risk, you may need a personal plan for testing. This may include:

  • having Pap tests more often
  • HPV test
Patient reviewing test results with their doctor

Do you know the #1 risk factor for developing cervical cancer?

The most important risk factor for developing cervical cancer is infection of the cervix with human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread mainly through sexual contact, including sexual intercourse, genital skin-to-skin contact and oral sex.

The virus can appear years after you have been exposed to it. Using a condom and other barriers during sex decreases the chances of getting HPV, but a condom or other barrier can only protect the area it covers. It may be possible to become infected by any uncovered areas.

Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you still need regular Pap tests. The HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV.