Cervical cancer starts in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the lower, thin opening of the uterus that connects the vagina (or birth canal) to the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer grows slowly over time and usually starts with abnormal changes to the cells on the cervix, known as dysplasia. Removing these abnormal cells can prevent cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer screening tests can find the cells that lead to cancer before it starts or find cancer early when it is most easily treated. The Papanicolaou (Pap) test screens for abnormal cells that may develop into cancer, and the HPV test screens for the human papillomavirus virus (HPV) that causes these cell changes. Neatly all cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). As many as 93% of cervical cancers could be prevented by screening and HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination.

Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations

The following screening recommendations have been developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The USPSTF is made up of experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine who review scientific evidence on a broad range of clinical preventive health care services and develop recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems.

USPSTF Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations for Women at Average Risk

Cervical cancer screening should start at 21 years of age

Pap test every three years between 21 and 29 years old

Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) every five years between 30 and 65 years old or a Pap test every three years.

There are two screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

Papanicolaou test (known as a Pap test or Pap Smear)

A Pap test is a procedure done in a doctor's office in which cells are taken from the cervix and looked at under a microscope. It is most often done during a routine pelvic exam. If the Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your health care provider will contact you for follow-up. There are many reasons why Pap test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.

High Risk (HR) Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test

The HR HPV test looks for the high-risk types of this virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer. The HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test using either the same sample of cells or a second sample taken right after the Pap test. A positive result for HR HPV means that you should be followed closely to make sure that abnormal cells do not develop. For more information on HPV and HPV vaccine visit:


Many people confuse pelvic exams with Pap tests because they are usually done at the same time. The pelvic exam is part of a woman's regular health care. During this exam, the health care provider looks at and feels the reproductive organs. The pelvic exam may help find diseases of the female organs, but it will not find cancer of the cervix at an early stage. To do that, cervical cancer screening tests are needed.

Talk with your health care provider about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer. Women who may no longer be having sex or who may feel too old to have a child should still have regular cervical cancer screening. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not had a Pap test in more than five years or have never been screened at all.