Most women can wait three to five years between checks for cervical cancer, depending on their age and test choice, say new guidelines.
Many medical groups have long recommended a Pap test every three years for most women. The new advice from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that's true for women ages 21 to 29 whose Paps show no sign of trouble.
But for healthy women ages 30 to 65, the preferred check is a Pap plus a test for the cancer-causing HPV virus, the group concluded. If both show everything's fine, they can wait five years for further screening.
The guidelines from the nation's largest OB-GYN organization agree with advice issued earlier this year by a government panel, the American Cancer Society and other medical groups -- showing growing consensus that it's safe for the right women to wait longer between Paps.
Cervical cancer grows so slowly that regular Pap smears, which examine cells scraped from the cervix, can find signs early enough to treat before a tumor even forms.
Certain strains of HPV, the human papillomavirus, cause most cervical cancer, but the infection has to persist for a number of years to do its damage. HPV is a super-common virus in young women, whose bodies usually clear the infection on their own. Thus, health groups don't recommend routinely testing 20-somethings for HPV because it would cause too many false alarms.
A Pap averages around $40; HPV tests can add another $50 to $100.
The guidelines also say:
• Women 30 and older still can choose a Pap alone every three years.
• Screening shouldn't begin before age 21.
• Women over 65 can end screening if prior testing hasn't found problems.