Harvard Health Letter

You may not need a Pap smear

New guidelines for the test.

Your next yearly gynecologist visit may not include a screening for cervical cancer, also known as a Pap smear. It's the result of new guidelines.

Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens at the top of the vagina. The cancer is usually caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), and it typically begins as a very slow--growing condition called dysplasia, which is 100% treatable. Doctors check for cervical cancer or HPV by collecting cells from the cervix. Sometimes the test shows abnormal results. "Most mild cervical changes will resolve on their own without any risk to the woman," says Dr. Elizabeth Buechler, a clinical instructor in obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School.

The new guidelines are based on evidence that, for most women, an annual Pap smear does not catch more cancers. It just leads to more invasive diagnostic procedures that aren't needed, which can lead to complications.

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