When Should Mammograms and Pap Smears Be Performed?

Here we answer all of your question regarding Mammograms and Pap Smears.

When Should Mammograms and Pap Smears Be Performed?

Although we may logically understand the need to prioritize the health issues unique to our genders, the reality is that too many women are forgoing their annual exams with their obstetrician-gynecologists. According to 2018 data, only 31 percent of women said they consulted with their OB-GYNs once per year, while 26 percent of women said they did so less frequently and 26 percent of women said they never did so. What’s more, a recent study revealed that the percentage of women who visit these medical professionals has been on the decline since the year 2000.

That said, the majority of women who do see their OB-GYN on a regular basis do so to receive preventative care or to obtain treatment for a new problem. Although some women will actually be more inclined to schedule an appointment with their OB-GYN than with their general physician, it’s recommended that female patients see their sexual health specialists once per year for their annual exam, with additional screenings and tests as appropriate for the individual in question.

Take mammograms and pap tests, for example. Both mammograms and pap smears may be performed by gynecologists, but these exams serve very different purposes and should be performed at different frequencies. Some patients may not have to worry about undergoing a breast cancer screening for some years to come, while others should plan on having cervical cancer screenings or STD testing performed on a more frequent basis. Today’s post should clear up some common questions surrounding these exams, including why they’re performed and whether or not you should expect one during your next visit.


Mammograms are used to check for the presence of breast cancer, particularly in women who show no obvious signs of the disease. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast tissue; when doctors at the Breast Institute and other reputable medical facilities examine these images, they may be able to detect breast cancer or areas of the breast that may require additional screenings. Mammography can provide early breast cancer detection and has been shown to reduce the number of breast cancer fatalities in women aged 40 to 74. That said, there are risks of false positive results, which can result in overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment in many cases.

In short, undergoing mammograms too early or too frequently may actually be detrimental to patients. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women start undergoing mammograms when they turn 40 and continue these screenings once every year or every two years throughout the next decade. Approximately 65.3 percent of women over age 40 had a mammogram between 2013 and 2015, showing that the majority of women do take these screenings seriously. Once the patient turns 50, annual mammography is recommended. Some women with a higher risk of breast cancer may require more frequent screening, as well as screenings before they turn 40. Patients should discuss mammograms, as well as alternatives (like breast MRIs, self-exams, and clinical breast exams) to promote awareness, education, and early diagnosis.

Pap Tests

Pap tests, or pap smears, are performed in order to test for the presence of abnormal cells and cervical cancer. This test involves collecting cells from the cervix, which will allow your OB-GYN to look for the presence of abnormal cells; if they are detected, your doctor may recommend further testing or treatment. This test is typically one component of a pelvic exam, which is usually performed during your annual appointment. Pap smears are frequently performed in conjunction with a human papillomavirus (HPV) test, as this extremely common sexually transmitted disease can sometimes lead to the development of cervical cancer.

Most doctors recommend that patients start receiving pap smears once the patient turns 21, though there may be exceptions. Some women, particularly those who have been diagnosed with HPV or shown signs of abnormal cervical cells in the past, will need to receive a pap test every year at their annual exams. There are additional risk factors, such as smoking or weakened immune systems, that may warrant more frequent testing, as well. Other women may need to undergo this part of the pelvic exam only once every three years (or even once every five years). Women will usually continue to undergo these tests until they turn 65. Testing frequency really comes down to the individual patient and her doctor’s recommendations for overall health.

While there are general guidelines in place to help women and their doctors to determine when both mammograms and pap tests should be performed, the recommended frequency of either exam is very much dependent upon the individual patient and the doctor’s experience. Therefore, it’s essential for women to establish an ongoing relationship with their OB-GYNs and make appointments on a yearly basis. This can provide a valuable baseline that can then be used to determine what’s in the patient’s best interests.

Read next: The State
Carlos Fox
See all posts by Carlos Fox