By making healthy lifestyle choices and getting checked regularly, you can reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer.
The Papanicolaou test (also called cervical cytology, a Pap test, Pap smear, cervical smear or smear test) is a quick and simple test used to look for any changes in the cells of the cervix. First a speculum is inserted to open the walls of the vagina. A tiny plastic spatula is used to gently scrape cells from the outer opening of the cervix and the endocervix. The cells are examined under a microscope to look for abnormalities.
Most abnormal Pap tests don’t mean that you have a serious problem. An abnormal test does mean that you need further testing. Regular Pap tests can find abnormalities or changes in the cervix before cancer develops. Most abnormal Pap tests result from precancerous changes called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) or cervical dysplasia. These precancerous changes can be detected easily and treated successfully. Most precancerous changes are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common family of viruses that is passed between people through sexual activity, including almost any close skin-to-skin genital contact. Most people (about 80%) will have HPV at some time in their lives, and almost all HPV infections resolve on their own within about 2 years.
There are 2 types of HPV infections:
Low-risk: The low-risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. They can also cause minor abnormalities on your Pap test, but these abnormalities most often clear on their own in women with normal immune systems. The low-risk strains of HPV do not cause cervical cancer.
High-risk: Infection with the high-risk type of HPV can cause a series of precancerous abnormalities in the cervix. It can lead to cervical cancer if it is not detected and treated. Having high-risk HPV does not mean you will develop cervical cancer.
Most women who are exposed to HPV do not develop cervical cancer. Getting Pap tests regularly finds abnormal cells and helps prevent cervical cancer.
HPV testing checks for the presence of high-risk HPV types. HPV testing is not recommended for everyone and almost never for women under 30 years of age. The HPV test is used to assist you and your health care team in deciding what the best treatment options are for you.
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