Do you know the difference between a pap test and a pelvic exam? Many women think they are the same thing. But there are important differences between the two.
The purpose of a Pap is to screen for cervical cancer. During an annual visit, your health care provider will test a small sample of cells from your cervix and screen for any abnormalities that may be indicative of cancer.
Detecting cervical cancer at an early stage provides patients with a much better chance at early treatment and a cure. Paps should start at age 21 or as soon as a woman is sexually active. It is an annual test from age 21 until age 55 or until your health care provider says it is no longer necessary. After that time, it may be required every other year or every three years depending on your provider’s recommendation.
Some women may still require annual Pap tests, including those who receive abnormal results or who use hormone replacement therapy, have a history of dysplasia, cancer, or HIV. Your health care provider can help you determine if you’re at an increased risk for cancer or require more frequent Pap smears.
While a Pap smear is perhaps the most-discussed component, an annual pelvic exam involves many more components. An annual visit to your health care provider will include a full examination starting with your breasts and continuing to your vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, rectum, pelvis, and ovaries.
In addition to screening for cervical cancer, an annual pelvic exam is also a chance to detect abnormalities like ovarian cysts and uterine fibroids, as well as other cancers—like vulvar, vaginal, and uterine. These types of cancers cannot be detected via a Pap smear.
Skipping your annual pelvic exam can allow concerns like these to go unnoticed for an extended period of time, which can prevent early detection and treatment.
An annual visit also provides women the opportunity to talk to their health care provider about lingering questions, whether it’s persistent pelvic pain, irregular periods, or breast pain, that they may have been shrugging off for a while. If you are unsure, ask your healthcare provider what they recommend, as they know best what is right for you.