A Pap smear, or Pap test, is a procedure used to screen women for cervical cancer. More specifically, it is a test of a sample of cells taken from the cervix or vagina. This procedure is usually performed in conjunction with a pelvic exam and results come back as either Normal or Abnormal. There are many causes for Abnormal results, and your doctor will evaluate them to see if more testing is necessary.
The main thing your doctor is looking for are any changes in the cells of the cervix and vagina that either show cancer or conditions that could become cancerous. A Pap smear procedure is the best way to detect precancerous conditions and small tumors that may develop into cancer. Cervical cancer can be cured if detected early, so understanding what a pap smear is and when to have them can be life-saving.
Most doctors recommend that you should have a pap smear procedure starting at age 21. As far as frequency is concerned, you should have a Pap smear every three years from age 21 until 65 (that’s about 14-15 pap smears in your lifetime) unless you’re 30+ and have a normal Pap test and a negative HPV test, then every five years is adequate. Other factors may call for screenings more or less frequently, so be sure to talk with your doctor about what that means for you.
There are a few of things you need to do to prepare for your Pap smear to ensure the most effective results. Avoid intercourse, douching, or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before the procedure, as these activities could wash away or obscure abnormal cells. Also, it is best to not schedule a Pap smear during your period. The test can be done during your period, but it’s better to avoid that time of your cycle if at all possible.
Pap smear procedures are performed in a doctor’s office and only take a few minutes. You may be required to undress from either the waist down or completely and you will be laying down on an exam table with your knees bent and heels resting in supports called stirrups. Your doctor will use an instrument called a speculum to hold the walls of your vagina apart so your doctor can easily see your cervix. This may cause a sensation of pressure in your pelvic area. Samples of your cervical cells are then collected with a plastic spatula and small brush, it usually does not hurt. After the procedure, you can go about your day normally, without restrictions. Ask your doctor about when to expect the test results.