As a woman, it can be hard to keep track of all the yearly medical exams you're supposed to get and when. Mammograms, Pap smears, annual exams, physicals—when was the last time you had one, and when is your next one due? Well, for most women, things have gotten a little simpler because the guidelines have changed about Pap tests—the screening tests for cervical cancer. You no longer have to get one every year.

The biggest change is for women age 30 to 65. "The preferred method [for screening] is a combination Pap smear and HPV (human papillomavirus) screening," says Dr. Pat Kulpa, obstetrician-gynecologist and medical director for Regence Blue Shield. "Patients like it because it's every five years. If you just do the Pap without the HPV test, then you need to do it every three years."

Dr. Kulpa recommends that women from ages 21 to 29 get just the Pap test every three years. And if you're older than 65, you may be off the hook for Pap tests. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says that if you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap tests for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for noncancerous conditions, you don't need to have a Pap test anymore. And anyone under the age of 21 doesn't need one, either. Of course, there are some exceptions, so check with your doctor to be sure.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by a common virus called HPV.  Most cervical cancer can be prevented with regular screenings and follow-up care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that girls between the ages of 11 to 12 years old receive the HPV vaccine. It's given in three doses over six months. Even if a girl hasn't gotten the vaccine at a young age, the CDC still recommends getting vaccinated for HPV through age 26. Following this newer set of guidelines has already resulted in a decrease in cervical cancers.

The Pap test in younger women (ages 21 through 29) and the combined Pap/HPV test in older women (ages 29 and up) are the best ways to find early signs of cervical cancer. "This is a very minimal test that catches such a significant cancer," said Dr. Jim Guyn, Regence executive medical director for quality and accountable health care.

Cervical cancer was once the deadliest cancer for women in the U.S. In the last 80 or so years, however, there have been tremendous improvements in treatment and screening, including the development of the HPV vaccination. Though death from cervical cancer is now relatively rare, more than 10,000 women still get cervical cancer.

Most women who have abnormal Pap test results or who have HPV do not get cervical cancer as long as they follow their doctor's advice for more tests or treatment.

How often should you get tested?

  • Starting at age 21, get a Pap smear every three years until you are 65 years old.
  • If you are 30 or older, your Pap test is normal, and your HPV test is negative, you can safely go five years between Pap tests.

Keep in mind that even if you're getting your Pap test every five years, you should still see your doctor for your annual pelvic exam. "This gives your doctor the opportunity to talk about other things like wellness and prevention," says Dr. Kulpa. "And it gets you in the door to talk about other things. You should still go in for your yearly exam, even if you don't need a Pap."

Cervical cancer screening, including HPV testing (for women 30 and over) and Pap smears, is covered with no copay when you use an in-network doctor. (Use Find a doctor to find a doctor in your network.)