I’m 16 and I’m having sex. Should I get a Pap smear?

Great question! You actually don’t need to get a Pap smear until you’re 21, regardless of whether or not you’re sexually active. A Pap smear screens for abnormalities in the cells on your cervix, which can sometimes be signs of HPV (Human Papillomavirus) or cervical cancer.

HPV is extremely common—in fact, it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the USA! Pretty much everyone who has ever had sex will get HPV at some point. It’s usually not a big deal because your body will get rid of HPV on its own most of the time. However, some strains of HPV can lead to cancers of the cervix, throat, anus and more. This is why getting the HPV vaccine—which protects against several of these cancer-causing strains—is so important!

If you’re under 21, your odds of getting cervical cancer are extraordinarily low, even if you’re having sex. This means that a Pap smear isn’t very useful for you. However, you don’t have to wait until you’re 21 to see a gynecologist. They can answer any questions you have about your period, birth control, STIs, whether your discharge is normal, and so much more. Seeing a gynecologist is especially important if you feel uncomfortable talking about sex with your primary care provider for any reason.

We talk more about Pap smears and what to expect at your first gynecological exam here. Remember that even though Pap smears always include a gynecological exam, they’re not the same thing. Gynecological exams are sometimes performed without doing a Pap smear.

If you live near NYC, you can also make a free, confidential appointment with an adolescent medicine specialist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We can answer any other questions you have about your health, from STIs to nutrition to healthy relationships and more. You can also get the HPV vaccine for free, if you haven’t gotten it already!