The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked concern among many people about visiting doctors’ offices or medical clinics for non-emergency or routine care. While taking steps to minimize exposure to the virus is understandable, your health can suffer if you forego preventive medical care, such as annual wellness exams and, for women, Pap smears. With the proper precautions, it is safe to get a Pap smear during Covid-19. Moreover, it’s very important to do so.
Also knows as a Pap test, a Pap smear checks for cervical cancer, a type of gynecological cancer that starts in the cells lining the cervix, which is the opening to the uterus. Over time, normal cells can become precancerous. While abnormal changes may go away on their own, some precancerous cervical cells will develop into cancer. That’s why it is important to detect changes early and treat them if necessary.
The Pap test is a quick, painless procedure performed during a gynecological exam. The physician takes a sample of cells from the cervix and sends them to be tested for abnormal changes. The test can also detect cervical cancer early when it’s easier to cure. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed far more often than invasive cervical cancer.
Most women 21 to 65 years old should have Pap tests. Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44; it rarely develops in women younger than 20. More than 20 percent of cases occur in women older than 65, but this is rare among women who have had regular screening exams before age 65. Women should have Pap tests even if they are not sexually active, have gone through menopause, or have had a hysterectomy.
Generally, Pap tests are recommended every year. Your doctor will let you know how often you should be tested. They may recommend more frequent testing if you have health conditions that can raise your risk of cervical cancer, such as a history of abnormal Pap results, HIV or a compromised immune system.
The greatest risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact; about 80 percent of sexually active women have the virus. Along with your Pap test, your doctor may recommend an HPV test.
“We check for this infection with the HPV DNA test, which we can combine with the Pap test,” says Maria Murillo, MD, an OB-GYN at Scripps Clinic in North County. “It’s a common infection and most cases of HPV clear up on their own, but we want to know if you have it so we can keep an eye on any changes to the cells.”
Pap test results usually take two to three weeks. A negative result means nothing abnormal was detected. If your test is positive, your doctor will let you know the next steps.
“A positive Pap smear does not mean you have cervical cancer,” says Dr. Murillo. “It means we found abnormal or unusual cells, and that could be due to several reasons. Usually, the first step is to repeat the test. If the result is still positive, we look into further testing.”
If you test positive for HPV infection, your doctor will likely recommend monitoring the infection to see if it clears up on its own. Precancerous cells or early-stage cervical cancers may be treated with procedures using cold, heat, laser or surgery to remove abnormal cells. These treatments have a high success rate and can usually be performed in the doctor’s office on an outpatient basis.
“The important thing is to not put off your Pap test, especially if you are postponing it because of COVID-19,” says Dr. Murillo. “Scripps doctors and clinics are all taking every precaution to keep patients safe, including cleaning, distancing and wearing masks. It’s safe to come in, and it’s vital that you get this test done.”