Advance with MUSC Health

Get Cervical Cancer Screenings at Recommended Intervals

Advance With MUSC Health
January 10, 2023
Dr. Crystal Houlton

Dr. Crystal Houlton, an MUSC Health OB/GYN has a message for women:

Get screened for cervical cancer at recommended intervals; get the HPV vaccine, and don’t ignore your annual women’s health visits.

“We have learned a whole lot more about cervical cancer and its cause,” Dr. Houlton says. “High-risk HPV, the human papilloma virus, is the only cause of cervical cancer.” 

ASCCP guidelines for cervical cancer screening have changed in recent years because of improved testing and the addition of typing abnormal cervical cells, Dr. Houlton says. The guidelines have increased screening interval times, prompting some women to conclude they can let up on their annual exams. 

Not so, Dr. Houlton says. “Average women should absolutely get their annual exam. That’s when we talk about health habits and exercise, contraception, and perform a pelvic and a breast exam. These visits are essential for maintaining good health.” 

The ASCCP recommends that women begin getting Pap smears, the test for cervical cancer, at age 21 and continue until age 65. 

Specifically, a PAP smear is recommended every 3 years for women 21- 30 and every 5 years, with high-risk HPV typing for women, for women 31-65. 

“The guidelines were changed because the HPV test is so much more accurate and because cervical cancer develops slowly, so women don’t need testing every year,” she says. 

During a Pap test, the cervix is swiped for cells, which are examined for any abnormalities under a microscope. A second, HPV test is used to analyze those same cells to check for the presence of HPV cells. 

If HPV cells are detected, that doesn’t mean a woman has cervical cancer. 

“It means she has some abnormal cells, a condition known as dysplasia, which are linked to cervical cancer,” Dr. Houlton says. “These are precancerous changes that can precede cancer by up to10 years. As long as a woman is getting her Pap test and we catch those changes in the cells very early, this condition can be treated and cured before it even turns into cervical cancer.” 

HPV is not hereditary. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual intercourse. The virus is common, and people with healthy immune systems clear the virus without ever knowing they were exposed. 

An HPV diagnosis is associated with the number of partners, not age, Dr. Houlton says. 

Factors such as the number of partners, things that lower the immune system such as HIV or AIDS, and substances such as tobacco use, and carcinogens increase one’s risk. 

The good news is that cervical cancer rates are declining because screenings are widely available and people are getting better access better to health care, Dr. Houlton says. 

Dr. Houlton recommends that boys and girls be vaccinated between between the ages of 9 and 11.

“The vaccine is effective, especially against strains 16 and 18, which are most common,” she says. “There are many HPV strains, but the vaccine does decrease one’s likelihood of getting the virus, and we learned from the pandemic that viruses can behave more unpredictably.” 

She does not recommend the vaccine for older people who are in a monogamous relationship. 

“HPV is the most common virus of the reproductive tract, but is treatable and curable if caught early,” Dr. Houlton says. “Women can reduce their risk of exposure by practicing safe sex, using a condom and avoiding tobacco, and getting screened at recommended intervals,” she says. 

Dr. Houlton practices at MUSC Women's Health East Cooper and Daniel Island Medical Pavilion for Women’s Health. To make an appointment at East Cooper, call 843-876-3292. For Daniel Island Women’s Health Services, call 843-876-7975.