January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

By Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD

President, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

The cervix is the lower, narrow opening of the uterus. It is covered by a thin layer of cells that are continually growing and being replaced. Certain factors, such as an infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), can cause cervical cells to begin to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells often go away without treatment, but in some women they will continue to grow and eventually turn into cancer.

Pap screening allows your doctor to detect and monitor the growth of abnormal cervical cells. As science evolves and we better understand how cervical cancer develops, ob-gyns regularly update recommendations. We now know that cervical cancer usually grows very slowly and that less frequent cervical screening is just as effective in preventing cancer as annual testing. Therefore, while many women are used to having a yearly Pap test, they may now be able to go two or three years between them.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women have their first Pap test at age 21; women 21­–29 years old may be screened every two years instead of annually; and women age 30 and older who have had three consecutive negative cervical cytology test results may be screened once every three years. Women age 65–70 years and older and those who have had hysterectomies for noncancerous reasons may not need to be screened.

Even though you may need fewer Pap tests, you should not skip your yearly visit to the ob-gyn. Pap screening is only one part of your overall healthcare.

The College recommends that women receive an annual well-woman check-up, which typically consists of a general examination (height, weight, body mass index, and blood pressure), a breast exam, and a pelvic exam—with or without a Pap test—to assess reproductive health. Your doctor may test your blood for cholesterol or sugar levels and check your waist circumference to gauge your heart disease and diabetes risk. Additional blood, urine, and STD screenings may also be ordered.

Annual ob-gyn visits open a dialogue between you and your doctor and help ensure that you receive age-appropriate screenings, exams, and immunizations. They provide patients the opportunity to address any health changes or concerns and allow physicians to better identify and treat common problems before they become serious health risks. Be sure to speak honestly with your doctor about all aspects of your health and lifestyle such as your health history, diet and exercise habits, and sexual practices.