Is Pap Testing Better Than HPV Vaccination?

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn't either/or. Image: Andy Newson

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn’t either/or. Image: Andy Newson

It’s January, which means that it’s Cervical Health Awareness Month! If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before becoming sexually active, and receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you can maximize what modern medicine has to offer. However, some people think you can just do one and ignore the other. Are they right?

You’ve probably heard of HPV, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. This virus has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


HPV isn’t just the “cervical cancer virus” — it’s a jack of all trades that can trigger cellular abnormalities all over the body.


One of the cancers most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In fact, when Gardasil, the most popular HPV vaccine in the United States, made its debut, it was marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine,” despite the fact that HPV can cause other types of cancer. Nevertheless, a vaccine that could protect against such a common and potentially dangerous virus was good news indeed. However, some critics were quick to point out that cervical cancer is rare in the United States, thanks to widespread access to Pap testing, an effective screening procedure that can catch cellular abnormalities when they are still in their “precancerous” stages, allowing them to be treated before progressing to cancer.

For those of us planning to receive regular Pap testing, is vaccination really necessary? Likewise, if we’ve been vaccinated against HPV, do we really need regular Pap tests? Let’s examine both questions separately. Continue reading

How Often Do I Need a Pap Test?

Almost 80 years ago, Dr. George Papanicolaou developed a simple test, the Pap test (also called the Pap smear), done in a doctor’s office to check for cervical cancer. During a pelvic exam, a doctor swabs a small sample of cervical tissue and looks for abnormal cells. If these precancerous cells are detected, it will lead to more tests or other more invasive treatments such as a colposcopy (in which actual tissue may be removed). In the 1930s, when Papanicolaou was developing his test, cervical cancer was more lethal than breast cancer. But since the development of this test, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has dropped dramatically. In 2009, of the 4,000 women in the United States who died of cervical cancer, most had never been screened or had not been screened in the 10 years before their diagnosis.


This year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended less frequent Pap testing.


Cervical cancer is most common in women between ages 35 and 55, and usually develops from a human papillomavirus or HPV infection. Not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer, and it can take decades for a persistent infection with a high-risk type of HPV to become cancer. High-risk HPV types are sexually transmitted and can lead to cervical cancer and also anal, penile, and oral cancers.

There are two types of screening: Pap tests and HPV tests. While they both require a pelvic exam in which cells are taken from the cervix, Pap tests look for abnormal or precancerous cells, and HPV tests look for DNA or RNA from high-risk HPV types in cervical cells. Both tests are used to try to catch cervical cancer in its earliest stages so that it can be successfully treated. Continue reading