The Basics: Overview
Getting screened for cervical cancer means getting tested before you have any symptoms. Screening tests for cervical cancer include:
- Pap tests, also called Pap smears
- HPV (human papillomavirus) tests
These tests can help find cervical cells that are infected with HPV or other abnormal cells before they turn into cervical cancer.
Most cervical cancers can be prevented by regular screenings – and the right follow-up treatment when needed.
How often should I get screened (tested)?
How often you need to get screened depends on how old you are and which screening tests you get.
If you are age 21 to 29, get screened with a Pap test every 3 years.
If you are age 30 to 65, you have 3 options:
- Get screened every 3 years with a Pap test
- Get screened every 5 years with an HPV test.
- Get screened every 5 years with both a Pap test and an HPV test.
Talk with your doctor about which option is right for you. Some women may also need to get screened more often. For example, your doctor may recommend that you get screened more often if you’ve had abnormal test results in the past.
If you are age 66 or older, ask your doctor if you need to continue getting screened for cervical cancer.
The Basics: Cervical Cancer
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the low, narrow part of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina.
Abnormal cells in the cervix can turn into cancer if they aren't found and treated. Cervical cancer is most commonly found in women who don't get regular screenings.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus). Some types of HPV cause genital warts, and others cause cancer. HPV is the most common infection spread through sex (vaginal, anal, and oral).
In most cases, HPV infections go away on their own. But when they last for a long time, they can cause cancer. Get more information on HPV infection.
Learn more about cervical cancer and screening:
The Basics: Cervical Cancer Screening Tests
What happens during cervical cancer screening tests?
Cervical cancer screening tests usually happen as part of a pelvic exam. During this exam, you lie on your back on an exam table, bend your knees, and put your feet into stirrups.
While you lie on the exam table, the doctor or nurse will put a medical tool (called a speculum) into your vagina and open it to see your cervix. The doctor or nurse will use a special brush to collect some cells from your cervix. These cells will be sent to a lab, where an expert will check for abnormal cells or for the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
These tests take about 5 minutes. It may feel uncomfortable, but it usually doesn't hurt.
Learn more about cervical screening tests:
What else happens during a pelvic exam?
Cervical cancer screening is just part of a pelvic exam. During this exam, the doctor or nurse will also check your uterus, ovaries, and other organs.
Take Action: Get Screened
Take these steps to help prevent cervical cancer.
Schedule your cervical cancer screening test.
Call a doctor’s office or health clinic to schedule your cervical cancer screening test and pelvic exam. Schedule the test for a time when you won’t have your period.
Get ready for your test.
Some things can cause incorrect Pap test results. Ask your doctor if you need to follow any special instructions before getting a cervical screening test.
Find out your test results.
When you get screened, ask the doctor how you will find out the results.
The kind of results you get can vary based on the type of test:
- Pap test results can be "normal," "unclear," or "abnormal."
- HPV test results can be “positive” or “negative.”
It can take up to 3 weeks to get your results. If you don’t hear back by then, call your doctor’s office or clinic. Get help understanding your cervical screening test results.
If your Pap test result is "abnormal" or your HPV test result is "positive," it's important to get the follow-up care your doctor recommends.
What about cost?
Under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, most insurance plans must cover screening for cervical cancer. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get tested at no cost to you.
- If you have private insurance, check with your insurance provider to find out what’s included in your plan.
- If you don't have insurance, find a program near you that offers free or low-cost cervical cancer screening tests.
- If you have Medicare, learn about Medicare coverage for Pap tests.
For information about other preventive services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Take Action: Lower Your Risk
Get the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for women age 26 and younger and for men age 21 and younger. Most people get it as a pre-teen – but if you didn’t get it and you are 26 or younger, talk with your doctor about getting it now.
The vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer. It may also protect against types that can cause other kinds of cancer and genital warts. Learn more about the HPV vaccine.
Get your child the HPV vaccine.
All girls and boys need to get the HPV vaccine – usually at age 11 or 12, although your child can get it as early as age 9. If you have kids, make sure they get the HPV vaccine.
Get your well-woman visit every year.
During your visit, talk to the doctor or nurse about other important screenings and services to help you stay healthy. Find out more about getting your well-woman visit every year.
Content last updated January 29, 2020
This information on cervical cancer was adapted primarily from materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute, and the Office on Women’s Health.
Richard Manrow, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Office of Communications and Education
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health