A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a screening procedure for cervical cancer. It tests for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells on your cervix.
During the routine procedure, cells from your cervix are gently scraped away and examined for abnormal growth. The procedure is done at your doctor’s office. It may be mildly uncomfortable, but doesn’t usually cause any long-term pain.
Who needs a Pap smear?
You may need more frequent tests if:
- You are HIV positive
- you have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant
If you’re over 30 and have not had abnormal Pap tests, ask your doctor about having one every five years if the test is combined with a HPV screening.
HPV is a virus that causes warts and increases the chance of cervical cancer. HPV types 16 and 18 are the primary causes of cervical cancer. If you have HPV, you may be at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap smear results may be able to stop having the test in the future.
You should still get regular Pap smears based on your age, regardless of your sexual activity status. That’s because the HPV virus can be dormant for years and then suddenly become active.
Pap smear preparation
- Let your doctor know if you’re menstruating because it may affect your results.
- Avoid sexual intercourse, douching, or using spermicidal products the day before the test.
- Relax. Take deep breaths and try to stay calm.
You can schedule a Pap smear with your annual gynecological examination or request a separate appointment with your gynecologist. Pap smears are covered by most insurance plans, though you may be required to pay a co-pay.
Try to avoid having sexual intercourse, douching, or using spermicidal products the day before your test because these may interfere with your results.
Since Pap smears go more smoothly if your body is relaxed, it’s important to stay calm and take deep breaths during the procedure.
Pap smear procedure
Pap smears can be a bit uncomfortable, but the test is very quick.
During the procedure, you’ll lie on your back on an examination table with your legs spread and your feet resting in supports called stirrups.
Your doctor will slowly insert a device called a speculum into your vagina. This device keeps the vaginal walls open and provides access to the cervix.
Your doctor will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix.
The sample of cells from your cervix will be preserved and sent to a lab to be tested for the presence of abnormal cells.
After the test, you might feel mild discomfort from the scraping or a bit of cramping. You could also experience very light vaginal bleeding immediately following the test. Tell your doctor if discomfort or bleeding continues after the day of the test.
Pap smear result
Normal Pap smear
If your results are normal, that means that no abnormal cells were identified. Normal results are sometimes also referred to as negative. If your results are normal, you probably won’t need a Pap smear for another three years.
Abnormal Pap smear
If the test results are abnormal, this doesn’t mean you have cancer. It simply means that there are abnormal cells on your cervix, some of which could be precancerous.