Pelvic Exam and Pap Test

Routine pelvic exams are essential in the detection of precancerous cell abnormalities and early-stage cervical cancer. The Pap test is usually part of a routine examination. The doctor uses a small tool to scrape a few cells from the cervix and a brush to take a cell sample from inside the cervical canal.

If you have health insurance or are eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, you can receive free or low-cost Pap tests. If you do not have such coverage, the CDC's National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program offers free or low-cost access to Pap tests. To learn more about the program, call 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp.

Coloscopy

During this screening test, the doctor inserts a metal instrument called a speculum into the vagina to open the vaginal canal and view the cervix with an instrument called a colposcope. This helps the doctor visualize any areas in question as well as less obvious areas of cell abnormality.

Learn more about Cervical Cancer Tests.

Vaccination

The identification of specific types of HPV responsible for causing cervical cancer has allowed researchers to develop vaccines that are highly effective against some—but not all—of these rogue viruses. Gardasil protects against the two most common high-risk HPV types (types 16 and 18). It partially guards against the third and fifth most common high-risk HPV types, (types 45 and 31, respectively).

The vaccine works by using a protein from the outer surface of the HPV particle to create virus-like structures that mimic the architecture of the virus. In essence, the presence of this protein disguised as a virus particle fools the body's immune system into mounting an antibody response that protects against infection if the body is exposed to the actual virus.

Who Gets Vaccinated?

The FDA recommends immunization for girls and women ages nine to 26. The vaccine is most effective when given before a young woman becomes sexually active, and recently published research suggest that it protects her against some common types of HPV for about six years. Gardasil is also approved to help prevent genital warts in young men ages 9 to 26.

Immunization against HPV will be effective only for young women who are vaccinated before becoming sexually active.  Pap tests remain the key to preventing cervical cancer in those who have matured past that window of time and in younger women who do not get vaccinated.

Vaccination Risks

It is important to remember that there are risks and benefits to most medical interventions, including vaccination. It is also important to remember than while a small subset of women infected with HPV will go on to develop cervical cancer, the vast majority of HPV infections in otherwise healthy women will be handled by the immune system and clear completely out of the body. The decision to be vaccinated against HPV should be the result of a clear discussion with your physician on the risks and benefits of vaccination.