A Woman’s Wellness exam is a one year visit to your medical care provider to assess and care for your general health. Depending on a woman’s age and medical needs, it may or may not include a breast exam, a pelvic exam and a Pap smear.
In the past, all women age 21 and older were advised to undergo a yearly screening for cervical cancer via a Pap smear. A Pap smear is an exam where a small sample of cells is scraped from the bottom of the uterus to be examined under a microscope to check for abnormalities especially cervical cancer. However, medical care providers saw significant numbers of false positives in these tests which led to unnecessary anxiety, additional testing, and even needless surgery. Because the results of these false positive tests are so unnecessarily invasive and costly, the recommended number of cervical cancer screenings were decreased from one every year to one every 3 years.
Specifically, the recommendations are now as follows:
- Women age 21-65 should be screened for cervical cancer every three years.
- At age 30 and older, a woman can consider being screened every five years if her examination includes a Pap smear and testing for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) a common sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.
- Women who are younger than age 21 but are also sexually active should be screened for cervical cancer at least three years after their first sexual encounter regardless of what age it occurred.
- Women over age 65 do not need to be tested if they have had a history of normal screening results prior.
- Women who have had a hysterectomy do not need to have a Pap test unless the surgery was done to treat a precancerous cervical lesion or cervical cancer.
- Women who have received the HPV vaccine still need regular cervical cancer screenings.
It’s also important to note that a pelvic exam and a Pap smear are not the same things. A Pap smear only tests for cervical cancer. A pelvic exam screens for other illnesses or abnormalities in a woman’s external genitalia and reproductive organs including the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
A pelvic exam is especially important for early detection of ovarian cancer. It also allows women the opportunity to address other health concerns and symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, bleeding outside of her normal period, constipation, pelvic pressure, the sensation of “bulge” inside the vagina, or just discussing birth control options and healthy lifestyle choices. For these reasons, it’s important that you continue scheduling a woman’s wellness exam every year regardless of whether or not you’re up for a Pap smear.