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Pap Test

What is a Pap Test?

The Pap test, also known as Pap smear, checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens into the vagina (birth canal). The Pap test can indicate if you have an infection, abnormal (unhealthy) cervical cells, or cervical cancer. During a Pap smear, your doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix to be tested and examined. A Pap test is safe with no known medical risks.

Why is a Pap Test Performed?

A Pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer. If diagnosed early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can detect infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer cells. Treatment can prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing.

Getting regular Pap tests is the best thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, regular Pap tests have led to a major decline in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths.

Do all Women Need Pap Tests?

It is important for all women to have annual Pap tests, along with pelvic examinations, as part of their routine health care. You need a Pap test if you are:

  • 21 years or older
  • Under 21 years old and have been sexually active for 3 years or more
  • There is no age limit for the Pap test. Even women who have gone through menopause need regular Pap tests.
  • Women aged 65 to 70 can talk to their doctor about stopping after at least 3 normal Pap tests and no abnormal results in the last 10 years.

How to Prepare for a Pap Test?

Many things can cause wrong test results by washing away or hiding abnormal cells of the cervix, so doctors suggest that at least 2 days before the test you avoid:

  • Douching
  • Using tampons
  • Using vaginal creams, suppositories, and medicines
  • Using vaginal deodorant sprays or powders
  • Having sex

Make sure to empty your bladder just before your examination. Doctors may suggest you schedule a Pap test when you do not have your period. The best time to be tested is 10 to 20 days after the first day of your last period.

How is a Pap Test Done?

Your doctor can do a Pap test during a pelvic examination. It is a simple and quick test. While you lie on an examination table, the doctor puts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina opening to see the cervix.

The doctor performing the examination,

  • Looks for lumps, sores, inflammation, or other abnormalities of the external genitals.
  • Inserts a metal or plastic instrument called a speculum into the vagina.
  • Uses a small disposable swab, wooden spatula, brush, or soft-bristled "broom" to remove cells from the entrance to the canal that connects the cervix with the uterus.
  • Places the cell sample on a glass slide, which is sent to a laboratory for examination under a microscope.

While usually painless, a Pap test is uncomfortable for some women.

What do Abnormal Pap Test Results Mean?

Abnormal Pap test results usually do not mean you have cancer. Most often there is a small problem with the cervix. Some abnormal cells will turn into cancer. But most of the time, these unhealthy cells will go away on their own. By treating these unhealthy cells, almost all cases of cervical cancer can be prevented. If you have abnormal results, then consult with your health care provider about what they mean.

Although every effort is made to educate you on the Pap test and take control, there will be specific information that may not have been discussed. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about any concerns you have about the Pap test.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists American College of Surgeons American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology