Pap Smear (Pap Test)
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 cervix is the opening of the uterus.
During the routine procedure, cells from your cervix are gently scraped away and then 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.
Most women should start getting regular Pap smears at age 21. Some women may be at increased risk for cancer or infection. You may need more frequent tests if:
- you’re HIV-positive
- you have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant
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.
You 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.
How often you need a Pap smear is determined by various factors, including your age and risk.
- Less than 21 years old, not sexually active, no known risk factors — No Test Needed
- Less than 21 years old, sexually active — Every 3 years
- 21-29 Years old — Every 3 years
- 30-65 Years Old — every 3-5 years if your Pap smear and HPV test are negative
- 65 Years and older — you may no longer need Pap smear tests; talk to your doctor to determine your needs
You can schedule a Pap smear with your annual gynecological examination or request a separate appointment with Dr. Monica Agarwal.
If 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.
In most cases, it’s safe to have a Pap smear in the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy. After that, the test may be more painful. You should also wait until 12 weeks after giving birth to increase the accuracy of 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 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. Then your doctor will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix. There are a few ways your doctor can take this sample. Some use a tool called a spatula, some use a spatula and a brush, and others used a device called a cytobrush, which is a combination spatula and brush. Most women feel a slight push and irritation during the brief scraping.
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 Dr. Monica Agarwal if discomfort or bleeding continues after the day of the test.
A Pap smear is a safe way to screen for cervical cancer. However, a Pap smear isn’t foolproof. It’s possible to receive false-negative results — meaning that the test indicates no abnormality, even though you do have abnormal cells.
A false-negative result doesn’t mean that a mistake was made. Factors that can cause a false-negative result include:
- An inadequate collection of cells
- A small number of abnormal cells
- Blood or inflammatory cells obscuring the abnormal cells
Although it’s possible for abnormal cells to go undetected, time is on your side. Cervical cancer takes several years to develop. And if one test doesn’t detect the abnormal cells, the next test most likely will.