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Cervical Cancer Screening (PDQ®)

Risks of Cervical Cancer Screening

Screening tests have risks.

Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The risks of cervical cancer screening include the following:

Unnecessary follow-up tests may be done.

In women younger than 21 years, screening with the Pap test may show changes in the cells of the cervix that are not cancer. This may lead to unnecessary follow-up tests and possibly treatment. Women in this age group have a very low risk of cervical cancer and it is likely that any abnormal cells will go away on their own.

False-negative test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be normal even though cervical cancer is present. A woman who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if she has symptoms.

False-positive test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. Also, some abnormal cells in the cervix never become cancer. When a Pap test shows a false-positive result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't), it can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests and procedures (such as colposcopy, cryotherapy, or LEEP), which also have risks. The long-term effects of these procedures on fertility and pregnancy are not known.

The HPV test finds many infections that will not lead to dysplasia or cervical cancer, especially in women younger than 30 years.

When both the Pap test and the HPV test are done, false-positive test results are more common.

Your doctor can advise you about your risk for cervical cancer and your need for screening tests.

Studies show that the number of cases of cervical cancer and deaths from cervical cancer are greatly reduced by screening with Pap tests. Many doctors recommend a Pap test be done every year. New studies have shown that after a woman has a Pap test and the results show no sign of abnormal cells, the Pap test can be repeated every 2 to 3 years.

The Pap test is not a helpful screening test for cervical cancer in the following groups of women:

  • Women who are younger than 21 years.
  • Women who have had a total hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus and cervix) for a condition that is not cancer.
  • Women who are aged 65 years or older and have a Pap test result that shows no abnormal cells. These women are very unlikely to have abnormal Pap test results in the future.

The decision about how often to have a Pap test is best made by you and your doctor.

  • Updated: November 25, 2014