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Pap smear vs. HPV test: Which do you need for cervical cancer screening?

Both can help stop cervical cancer in its tracks, but which test you get and how often depends on your personal medical history.

Not long ago, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest cancers for women. But today, women are half as likely to get cervical cancer (and die from it) than they were in the 1970s.

This is largely thanks to advances in cervical cancer screening. Nowadays, doctors can find precancerous cells before they become cancer. They can also test for infections that are known to cause cervical cancer. The result is the ability to prevent cancer before it happens or catch it early when it’s easier to treat.

You have 2 options when it comes to screening: a Pap smear or an HPV test. Here’s what you may want to know about cervical cancer and your screening options.

Health insurance may cover some preventive cancer screenings. Explore your plan options now, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for more information. 

What is cervical cancer, and what causes it?

Cervical cancer is most often caused by a virus called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread through sexual intercourse and intimate skin-to-skin contact. Infected people often have no signs or symptoms, making it very easy to spread the virus. HPV is extremely common — nearly everyone has had it or will get it at some point in their lives.

Most cases of HPV will go away on their own and cause no problem. But some infections can lead to cancer. Besides cervical cancer, HPV can also cause other cancers.

What tests screen for cervical cancer?

There are 2 tests for cervical cancer that can detect and prevent this disease: a Pap smear and an HPV test. While both tests are critical for cervical cancer prevention, they serve different purposes.

  1. What is a Pap smear? A small sample of cells is taken from your cervix and examined for signs of abnormal, potentially cancerous cells. “A Pap smear helps to detect abnormal cervical cells, which can lead to cervical cancer,” explains Daniel Roshan, M.D. He’s an ob-gyn at Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine in New York City.
  2. What is an HPV test? Doctors have another tool that can detect a potential problem even earlier: HPV tests. “HPV testing is looking for the presence of human papillomavirus in the cervical cells,” says Dr. Roshan. There are hundreds of different types of HPV, but only a handful are known to cause cancer. HPV tests are designed to find the most high-risk strains of HPV, adds Dr. Roshan. “In the absence of high-risk HPV, the risk of cervical cancer is very low,” he says.

One way to help pay for preventive care screenings is with health insurance. Explore your plan options now, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for more information.

When to get an HPV test vs. a Pap smear

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends that all women get screened for cervical cancer regularly starting at age 21. But as Dr. Roshan explains, which tests you get and how often will depend on your:

  • Age
  • Results of previous tests
  • Risk factors like personal or family history of cancer

“Your provider will guide you on how often you’ll be screened and the type of screening necessary,” says Dr. Roshan.

Even if you don’t need a cervical cancer screening every year, you’ll still want to see your doctor at least once a year for a well woman exam, advises Dr. Roshan. Your doctor checks many other things during this annual visit. It’s a chance to get a yearly snapshot of your overall health.

What does an HPV test and a Pap smear entail?

Whichever test you get, your experience will be exactly the same. Your doctor will collect a sample of cervical cells. The sample will be sent off to a lab where it will be examined for signs of abnormal cells (Pap test) or HPV infection (or both).

There’s nothing special you need to do to prepare for the test, says Dr. Roshan. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends booking this appointment for a time when you are not on your period, if possible. Your doctor’s office can give you further guidance when you call to set up your appointment.

What other ways can people protect themselves from cervical cancer?

An HPV vaccine can protect you from a high-risk HPV infection, potentially stopping the root cause of cervical cancer. This vaccine is recommended for all children (boys and girls) at age 11 or 12, but you can get it up to age 26. If you’re older than 26, ask your doctor if getting the vaccine is right for you.

Need health insurance for you or your family? Enter your ZIP code to search available plans, or call a licensed agent at 1-844-211-7730.

This article contains information that is not compiled by UnitedHealthcare or any of its subsidiaries. UnitedHealthcare does not represent all the information provided are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.


American Cancer Society. “Key statistics for cervical cancer.” January 17, 2024. Retrieved from  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “HPV infection.” February 9, 2024. Retrieved from    

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What should I know about screening?” August 21, 2023. Retrieved from

National Cancer Institute. “Cancer stat facts: Cervical cancer.” Retrieved from  Accessed February 29, 2024

National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. “Human papillomavirus test.” August 7, 2023. Retrieved from

National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. “Pap smear.” April 7, 2022. Retrieved from

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. “Cervical cancer: screening.” Retrieved from Accessed February 29, 2024

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