Do I still need Pap tests if I got the HPV vaccine before I ever had sex?

Q: I got the HPV vaccine before I started having sex.  Do I still need to get Pap tests?

A: Absolutely!  All women regardless of their vaccination status need regular Pap tests.

A Pap test looks at the cells from the cervix, the opening of the uterus. The cervical cells are collected with a spatula or brush during a speculum exam to see if they have any abnormalities which can lead to cervical cancer. The Pap test is still the best way to prevent cervical cancer. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • The HPV vaccine protects against 70% of the strains that can cause cervical cancer, so there are some cancer-causing strains that the vaccine does not protect against.
  • Because the vaccine is a recent development, we don’t yet know how long its protection lasts.  At this point, our best guestimate is about 5-9 years, so if you get the vaccine when you’re 10, it may not be effective when you’re 25.

Other important things to remember once you become sexually active:

  • The vaccine prevents HPV infection; it does not treat it.  If you were infected with a high risk strain before you received the vaccine, the vaccine won’t eliminate it.
  • The Pap test is only one component of your annual evaluation.  To stay as healthy as possible, you still need a complete gynecologic exam regardless of your HPV vaccination status.

The good news is that HPV is typically slow to progress to cervical cancer.  The vaccine in combination with regular pap tests can dramatically decrease your risk for this horrible disease, but they only work if you use them.  So be sure to see your women’s health care provider at least once a year, no matter what vaccines you’ve gotten!

You can learn more about Pap tests and HPV tests here.  And of course, you can always make an appointment with our Women’s Services Department.

Cheryl Czapla, Med IV
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Ryo Choi-Pearson, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University