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The question

How often should I have a Pap test?

The answer

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Regular Pap testing can reduce the risk of cervical cancer by 70 per cent, so I cannot overstate the importance of this test.

In Canada, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer (after breast cancer) in women aged 20 to 44. A Pap test can detect cell changes on the cervix that if left untreated for several years, could eventually turn into cervical cancer.

Each province and territory has their own set of guidelines for Pap tests, and currently these guidelines are being revised. I suggest you talk to a doctor about what frequency is best for you.

In general, the current recommendation is to begin having Pap testing done within three years of the start of sexual intercourse. After this, it is recommended to have a Pap test once a year for three consecutive years. If your Pap tests are normal three years in a row, you can then have a Pap test every other year.

You should continue to have Pap tests until you are at least 70 years of age.

Pap testing specifically looks for changes in the cervix, but does not test for sexually transmitted infections. If you are concerned about infections, be sure to ask your doctor to include this testing when he or she conducts the Pap test.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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