Getting a routine Pap test — also called a Pap smear — can help detect cervical cancer early or sometimes even before it develops. The test can detect changes in cells before they turn into cancer, allowing treatment before cancer develops. If cervical cancer has developed, the Pap test can help find it early, when it's easier to cure.
The number of cases of and deaths from cervical cancer have fallen significantly over the last 40 years largely because women are getting regular Pap tests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Pap test is one of the most effective and reliable cancer screening tests available.
Still, some women don't get routine Pap tests. And sadly, it's often women who have not had regular Pap tests who are diagnosed with the most invasive cervical cancers.
How is a Pap test done?
The Pap test is simple and quick. It can be done as part of a routine pelvic exam.
During the pelvic exam, your doctor will examine your vagina with an instrument called a speculum. Then he or she will use a tiny brush or other tool to take a sample of cells from your cervix. This cell sample is sent to a lab, where it's examined for cells that are cancerous or could become cancerous. For some women, a cervical cancer screening may also include testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
A Pap test should be done when you're not menstruating. The best time is between 10 and 20 days after the first day of your period. Also, don't have sex, douche, or use any type of vaginal cream or tampons for two days before the test. These things could affect your test results.
How often do I need a Pap test?
You should start having Pap tests at age 21. How often you're tested after that will depend on your health history and age.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women age 21 to 65 get Pap tests every three years. For women age 30 to 65 who want to get Pap tests less often, the USPSTF recommends their Pap test every five years also includes human papillomavirus testing.
The USPSTF does not recommend routine Pap tests for women who have had a total hysterectomy for benign disease or for women over 65 who are at low risk and have had normal screening results.
Your doctor can advise you on what recommendations are best for you.
Created on 03/10/2000
Updated on 07/09/2014
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gynecologic cancers: What should I know about screening?
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. FAQ cervical cancer screening.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for cervical cancer.
- Womenshealth.gov. Publications: Pap test.