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 the cervix, the opening of the uterus. It’s named after
the doctor who determined that this was a useful way to detect signs of
cervical cancer, Georgios Papanikolaou. During the procedure, cells from your
cervix are gently scraped away and then examined for abnormal growth.
Getting a Pap Smear
human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that causes warts. There are over 100
different types of HPV. There are 40 that are sexually transmitted. The primary
of cervical cancer are HPV types 16 and 18. Even though a Pap smear doesn’t
test for HPV, it identifies cellular changes caused by the virus. By detecting
cervical cancer cells early with a Pap smear, treatment can start before it
spreads and becomes a bigger problem.
can get HPV from sex with men or women. All sexually active women are at risk
for contracting HPV and should get a Pap smear at least every three years.
The test doesn’t detect other sexually
transmitted diseases. It can occasionally detect cell growth that indicates
other cancers, but it shouldn’t be relied on for that purpose.
Who Needs a
you should start getting regular Pap smears at age 21.
you are HIV-positive or have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an
organ transplant, you may need more frequent tests because of a higher risk of
infections and cancer.
you’re over 30 and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, ask your doctor
about having one every five years if the test is combined with an HPV
screening. Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap test results
may be able to stop having Pap smears in the future.
should still get regular Pap smears even if you’re in a monogamous
relationship. That’s because the HPV virus can be dormant for years, and then
suddenly become active.
for a Pap Smear
can schedule a Pap smear with your annual gynecological examination or request
a separate appointment with your gynecologist.
you’ll be menstruating on the day of your Pap smear, your doctor may want to
reschedule the test, since results could be less accurate. Try to avoid having
sexual intercourse, douching, or using spermicidal products the day before your
test because these may interfere with your results.
Pap smears go more smoothly if your body is relaxed, it’s important to stay
calm and take deep breaths during the procedure.
bad news is Pap smears can be a bit uncomfortable. The good news is that they’re
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 to keep the vaginal walls open and provide access to the cervix.
Then your doctor will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix using a
tool called a spatula. Most
women feel a slight push and irritation during the brief scraping.
sample of cells from your cervix will be preserved and sent to a lab to be
tested for the presence of abnormal cells.
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.
Results of a
are two possible results from a Pap smear: normal or abnormal. If your results
are normal, you probably won’t need a Pap smear for another three years.
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. Depending on what the test results show, your doctor may
recommend increasing the frequency of your Pap smears, or getting a closer look
at your cervical tissue with a procedure called colposcopy. This exam uses light and magnification to
see vaginal and cervical tissues more clearly. In some cases, your doctor may
also take a sample of your cervical tissue in a biopsy.
tests are very accurate and regular Pap screenings reduce cervical
cancer rates and mortality by 80
percent. Like a lot of medical testing, it’s
not pleasant, but the brief discomfort isn’t a good reason to neglect your
well-being. Getting regular Pap smears is the best way to protect your health.