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Women's Health

5 Lifesaving Tests for Women

WebMD ranks the top five lifesaving health tests every woman needs.
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No. 2 The Power of the Pap Test

Starting three years after becoming sexually active or by age 21, whichever comes first, women need an annual Pap test to detect any abnormal cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer. During a Pap test, a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix is taken and examined for abnormalities that may indicate cancer or changes that could lead to cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that the Pap test be done annually until age 30. After 30, if a healthy woman has had three completely normal Pap tests in a row, she can have a Pap test every two to three years (but should still see a gynecologist every year for an exam). Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., but the widespread use of the Pap test has significantly decreased deaths from this cancer.

But there's more. A human papillomavirus (HPV) test may be done as follow-up to an abnormal Pap test, says Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research based in Washington, D.C. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is the main cause of cervical cancer. An HPV test can help determine whether one or more high-risk types of HPV caused the abnormal Pap test result.

"If you are younger than 30, it's recommended you have the HPV test if your Pap smear test detects abnormal cells or is unclear, and if you are 30 or older, experts recommend you have the HPV test at the same time as your Pap test," she says.

There is also an HPV vaccine, Gardasil, to help prevent cervical cancer. The CDC recommends the vaccine for 11- and 12-year-old girls, but it can be given as young as age 9. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for girls and women aged 13 to 26 who have not been previously vaccinated or did not receive the complete vaccine series. Recent research suggests that Gardasil offers protection against viruses that cause 90% of cervical cancers.

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