For years, the only way to screen for cervical cancer was with a Pap smear. Then last summer, the FDA approved the first alternative method: the HPV test. Unlike a Pap, which detect abnormal cervical cells, this exam screens for the DNA of different strains of HPV, some of which are known to cause cancer. And now, two new studies show that the HPV test may provide more accurate results for women aged 25 and older.
While this is exciting, you may not want to make the switch to the new test quite yet. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) still recommends against giving women under age 30 an HPV test. Instead, they advise that women 21 to 29 get just a Pap smear every three years, and women 30 to 65 either do the same or get co-testing (a Pap smear and the HPV test) every five years. (Is Your Gyno Giving You the Right Sexual Health Tests?)
The reason ACOG steers clear of using the HPV test on younger women? About 80 percent of them get HPV at some point in lives (usually in their 20s), but their bodies clear the virus on its own with no treatment the majority of the time, explains Barbara Levy, M.D., ACOG’s vice president of advocacy. There’s concern that routinely testing women under age 30 for HPV will lead to unnecessary and potentially harmful follow-up screenings.
The bottom line: For now, stick with your usual Pap or, if you’re 30 or older, your Pap-plus-HPV test, and ask your ob-gyn to keep you updated with the latest recommendations. Then check out these 5 Things You Need to Know Before Your Next Pap Smear.