New pap smear guidelines say to reduce frequency

November 19, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
These are confusing times for women-- first came new mammogram guidelines, and now women are getting new rules about pap smears. Most women are used to having one every year, but now experts are saying that is too often.

The fact that these new pap smear guidelines come on the heels of the new mammogram guidelines is said to be purely coincidental. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says these proposed changes have been in the works for years.

The new guidelines call for routine paps to begin at age 21. Previously, it was recommended that women get their first cervical cancer screening within three years of first having sex or at age 21.

The new guidelines also recommend women 30 and older should wait three years between pap smears once they've had three consecutive clear tests, and that women 65 to 70 should stop having paps entirely if they've had no abnormal test results in the last 10 years.

Doctors on the panel say they came up with these new guidelines because the overuse of pap smears can cause harm.

They say precancerous growths, commonly found in young women with HPV, will go away if left alone. Those growths that are removed can lead to damage to the cervix and present problems later when a woman becomes pregnant.

ABC7 spoke to one OBGYN who says these guidelines shouldn't be interpreted as blanket recommendations for all women.

"A woman who's never been sexually active probably doesn't need a pap smear at all. On the other hand, someone at the age of 20 who has already had multiple partners probably does need a pap smear. And of course at the time of the pap smear, we do screening for sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, which can silent, and gonorrhea. We also council women about the whole breath of their healthcare and their healthcare needs," says Laurie Green, M.D., OBGYN from California Pacific Medical Center.

On Monday, an independent federal task force recommended that routine mammograms begin at age 50, not 40. But again, the American College Of OBGYNs says the timing of this is coincidental, not part of some larger plan to slash cancer screening for women.

Whether doctors and patients will follow these new pap smear guidelines isn't clear. The American Cancer Society has been suggesting less frequent testing for years, yet many continue to get their annual pap smear anyway.