Pap smear: What it is and why you would need one

A pap smear is an essential screening procedure that helps provide valuable information about women’s health. However, a lot of women avoid cervical cancer screening due to anxiety as it’s a very intimate gynecology exam. Their worries could be fueled by a lack of resources, a history of sexual or physical abuse, or a lack of knowledge about what a pap smear is for.

If you’re one of those women who are worried about cervical tests like pap smears, it’s understandable. Yet you must get these health exams. A pap smear could just be your life-saving weapon against cervical cancer and gynecological health conditions.

What is a Pap smear?

A pap smear, also called a pap test, is a screening procedure that tests women for cervical cancer. In detail, it checks for signs of precancer, which are cell changes in the cervix that might require treatment.

The process, often done during a pelvic exam, involves a speculum, a plastic or metal instrument used to widen your vagina. The doctor will then collect cells and mucus in and around the cervix. The sample is sent to the laboratory for testing.

It’s important to understand that pap smears are not designed to diagnose cancer itself. But 95% of cervical cancer cases were detected from a smear of abnormal cells in the cervix. In a way, pap testing helps pave the way for further testing until, eventually, a more accurate diagnosis can be achieved.

Who should get a Pap smear?

Doctors recommend that the pap smear test age for women should start at the age of 21. The frequency will depend on your age, previous test results, and health status. Women who have the following may benefit from more frequent pap smears:

  • A history of abnormal pap smear results
  • Cervical cancer
  • HIV infection
  • Precancerous cells
  • Weak immune system
  • Smoking habits

Do you need a Pap smear if not sexually active?

You’ll still need a pap smear even if you’re not sexually active. If you’ve never had vaginal intercourse, the risk of getting cervical cancer is low but you should still consider getting examined. Other non-sex-related factors could put you at risk, such as smoking and family medical history.

If you aren’t sexually active anymore, you should still consider getting pap smears. Cervical cancer can take 10 to 15 years to develop so you may still be at risk of getting the disease.

How often should you get a Pap smear?

The frequency of pap smear testing is established by:

  • Under age 21: No pap test needed
  • Age 21: Pap testing every three years (if results are normal)
  • Age 21 to 29: Pap testing every three years (if results are normal)
  • Age 30 to 65: Pap testing every three years (if results are normal) or pap testing every five years (if combined with HPV testing)
  • Age 65 and older: No pap test needed (if consecutive tests results are normal for a decade before turning 65)

What happens during a Pap smear?

During a pap smear procedure, you’ll be required to remove clothing items from the waist down. You’ll then be asked to lie down on the examination table with your back flat and your knees bent and wide open. This position will make it easier for the medical professional to access your vagina.

Using a speculum, the vaginal walls are opened gently to about 2.0 to 2.5 centimeters, depending on your age and the size of the opening. A soft brush is inserted to collect cell samples from the cervix and surrounding areas for laboratory analysis.

How long does a Pap smear take?

A pap smear should only last a few minutes.

How to prepare for a Pap smear?

A quick and successful pap smear will require proper preparation. If you’re scheduled for a cervical screening exam in the next two days, here are things you should and should not do:

  • Don’t rinse the inside of your vagina (douche) with water or any other fluid
  • Don’t wear a tampon
  • Don’t apply any medication on your private parts

Can you have sex before a pap smear?

You shouldn’t have sex or perform any sexual activity two days before your scheduled pap smear. This means you’ll also need to refrain from using birth control cream, foam, or jelly.

Can you get a pap smear on your period?

Ideally, you shouldn’t get tested when you have your menstrual period. The blood may interfere with the procedure and the results when getting a smear test on period.

Can you get a pap smear while pregnant?

Getting a pap smear during pregnancy is safe. The benefits you get for your health far outweighs any risk to the fetus in your womb. OB-GYN doctors would often give pregnant women a pap smear on their first prenatal visit to check for abnormal changes in the cervix that aren’t brought about by pregnancy.

Who can consider stopping Pap smears?

Generally, doctors would say that women 65 years old and older can consider stopping getting regular pap smears, especially if previous tests showed negative test results and you’re no longer sexually active. You can discuss with your doctor if this is possible for you based on your current health status.

Women who got a total hysterectomy, where the uterus and cervix were removed, can stop getting pap smears if the surgical procedure was performed for a non-cancerous condition. But if your hysterectomy was cancer-related, you should continue routine pap testing.

How long do Pap smear results take?

Pap smear results can be available within three weeks. If your test results are normal, your doctor will let you know when you can schedule another routine pap test. If the results are abnormal, your doctor will let you know if treatment or further testing is needed.

Does a Pap smear test for HPV?

A pap smear is different from an HPV test. Although both help prevent cervical cancer, the pap test only looks for changes in the cervix that may indicate the presence of precancerous cells. HPV screening, on the other hand, tests cells for human papillomavirus only.

Where can you get a Pap smear? 

You can get a pap smear test near me at your doctor’s office, a community health clinic, the local health department, or at an urgent care center near you. Pap smear test costs may vary depending on where you get tested, if your insurance provider covers the procedure, and if the pap smear test clinic near me you choose accepts insurance or not.

Take control of your health

It’s not unusual or uncommon to worry about pap smear tests—especially if you’ve never had one. But if you understand what it is, how it’s done, and what to expect, you’ll see why a pap smear is an essential screening tool to help you take control of your health. If you have concerns or questions about pap tests, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor. Communicate your feelings and feel free to speak up. Your health is worth it.

Does Pap smear hurt?

There may be some discomfort when the doctor inserts and widens the speculum but it shouldn’t cause any pain. If you feel any, let your doctor know.

Is Pap smear an STD test?

A pap smear isn’t an STD test. It only checks for abnormal cells in and around the cervix.

How long do you bleed after a Pap smear?

Collecting sample cells from the cervix may cause light bleeding or spotting. This is normal and should only last for a day or two.

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Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered, construed or interpreted as legal or professional advice, guidance or opinion.

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