Key points about a Pap smear

  • A Pap smear is a microscopic cervical screening test that women’s health specialists use to test for potentially precancerous and cancerous cervical cancer.
  • Regular, annual Pap smears can help doctors identify early on any signs of cervical disease.
  • A Pap smear is performed in your doctor’s office and is a very quick test.
  • You should schedule your Pap test when you are not having your period since menstruation can affect the results. 

Overview

A Pap smear is a microscopic cervical screening test that women’s health specialists use to test for potentially precancerous and cancerous cervical cancer. Early diagnosis often leads to an increased chance of successful treatment.

A Pap test can also detect certain viral infections such as human papillomavirus (HPV). 

Pap smears can sometimes be referred to as Pap tests. 

Candidates for a Pap Smear

All women should begin having regular Pap smears around age 21 (or when sexually active), and can usually stop having them around age 65. Depending on your age, your doctor will recommend testing frequency.

If you’ve had a total hysterectomy, talk to your doctor about your options.

Certain risk factors may play a part in the frequency of getting a Pap smear done. These risk factors include:

  • Having cervical cancer
  • A previous Pap smear revealing precancerous cells
  • Having an HIV infection
  • Being a smoker

Preparing for a Pap smear 

Once you've scheduled a Pap smear, avoid the following actions for two days prior to the procedure, as they may have an effect on the results of your Pap smear:

  • Intercourse
  • Douching
  • Using vaginal creams or jellies

If possible, you should try and schedule your Pap smear when you are not on your menstrual cycle.

Expectations of a Pap smear

You will need to undress and wear a gown that the office provides. You will lie on your back on an exam table, with your knees bent and your feet in supports. Your doctor inserts a speculum (specialized instrument) into your vagina. The speculum holds your vagina open so the doctor can examine your vagina and see your cervix. Your doctor then uses a flat scraping device (spatula) to collect some cervical cells. It may be a little uncomfortable, but this should not hurt — you may feel some slight discomfort due to the speculum. 

Recovery from a Pap smear

After the Pap smear, you can return to your normal activities immediately. Your doctor will send the cervical cells collected during the test to a lab and will advise you of your results. There are two possible results: normal or abnormal. 

A normal test result means that no abnormal cells were identified. Your doctor will advise you on when your next Pap smear should take place. 

If you receive an abnormal test result, this means that abnormal cells are detected on your cervix. This doesn’t mean you have cancer. Abnormal cells can be precancerous. If abnormal cells are detected, your doctor may perform a procedure called a colposcopy to get a closer look at the cervical tissue.

When should I seek treatment?

If it’s been over a year since your last Pap smear, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor can suggest a women’s health provider who can perform this important screening test.