According to current cervical cancer screening recommendations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) for women age 30 and older, if a woman's last three consecutive Paps were negative (meaning that her cervix showed no abnormal cells or potentially cancerous changes) or if her HPV tests did not detect any of the human papillomavirus types that can cause cervical cancer, she can wait three years before seeing her gynecologist again for additional cervical cancer screening.

It could be argued that most women age 30 and older do not need to have both an HPV test and a Pap-and in fact, the HPV test may one day replace the Pap as the initial screening for cervical cancer. But for the time being, either the Pap alone or both the HPV test and Pap are recommended by ACOG.

From the patient's point of view, an HPV test is performed just like a Pap and both can easily be done at the same time. A gynecologist sweeps the cervix with a soft brush to collect the cells that are shedding from the cervix, then places the sample in a vial of liquid and sends it to a lab. For the Pap, the cells suspended in the liquid are examined under a microscope to analyze their shape. For the HPV test, DNA from the cells is separated from that same liquid sample and tested for the presence of the 14 high-risk types of HPV associated with cervical cancer. Insurance typically covers the Pap and may cover the HPV test.

Important: If you use your gynecologist as your primary care provider, as some women do, you will still need to see him or her annually or as often as the doctor recommends for your regular checkup, even if you don't get a Pap or HPV test at those visits.

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