New Recommendations for Cervical Cancer Screening

By Rachel Walden — March 22, 2012

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has released a new recommendation statement on when and how often women should get cervical cancer screening.

Changes from the old recommendations include:

  • Pap test screening every 3 years among women age 21 to 65 years. Other organizations and previous recommendations have suggested waiting until age 30 to wait longer than a year between screenings, or suggested screening “at least every 3 years.” The evidence indicates that screening more often offers little benefit while creating a large increase in harms related to additional procedures and overtreatment.
  • A new recommendation that women younger than 21 not be screened, even if they are sexually active. Based on the available evidence, screening before age 21 does not appear to reduce the rates of cervical cancer or death.
  • A recommendation based on new evidence that HPV testing combined with Pap testing is okay for women age 30 to 65 years who want to do testing every 5 years instead of every 3 years.

The agency continues to recommend that these groups do not need screening: 1) women without a cervix and who don’t have a history of serious pre-cancer lesions or cervical cancer; 2) women older than 65 with a good record of previous screening who are not at a high risk for cervical cancer.

The USPSTF also recommends against HPV testing in women younger than age 30, because the potential harms are thought to outweigh the benefits in younger women. Rates of HPV are high in this age group while rates of cervical cancer are low, so younger women may experience false positives and unnecessary invasive interventions, such as colposcopy and cervical biopsy.

These procedures in turn sometimes can result in vaginal bleeding, pain, and infection. Some procedures, including cold-knife conization and loop excision, are associated with outcomes like preterm delivery, which can create additional risks for a newborn. The report recommendation also notes that women who get abnormal results may also experience short-term psychological harms like increased anxiety, and that overdiagnosis of HPV or lesions that may not really affect a woman’s health can create additional stresses.

The recommendations do not apply to women who have an increased risk of cervical cancer because of HIV infection, a compromised immune system, in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), or previous treatment for a high-grade precancerous lesion or cervical cancer.

The new recommendations are freely available online. Note that they will often say “cytology” screening – this means Pap tests (or “smears”). The agency has also released a three-page guide to understanding the recommendations.

To understand how the harms of more frequent screening can outweigh the good, see What the New Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines Mean for Women on the Our Bodies Ourselves website.

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