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A Pap smear (also called a Pap test) is a procedure that tests for the presence of abnormal cells in the cervix (the lower part of your uterus). Changes in the cells of a woman’s uterus may indicate an infection, cancer, or reproductive problems. For this reason, a routine Pap smear is recommended for all women every three to five years.
Abnormal uterine cells can lead to cervical cancer in some women. A Pap test is the easiest way to monitor changes in these cells. It is often combined with a test for human papillomavirus virus (HPV), which can also cause cervical cancer in some instances.
Starting at the age of 21, women should get a Pap test every three years. If you are HIV-positive or have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant, you may need more frequent Pap tests because of a higher risk of infections and cancer.
If you are over 30 and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, ask your doctor about having one every five years if the test is combined with an HPV screening. Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap tests may be able to stop having Pap tests in the future.
You can schedule a Pap smear with your annual routine physical or request a separate appointment with your gynecologist.
If you will be menstruating on the day of your test, be sure to check with your doctor to see if you should reschedule. Try to avoid having sexual intercourse, douching, or using spermicidal products the day before your test because these may interfere with 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.
The Pap smear test is a fairly quick procedure that is performed by your doctor or OBGYN. You will lie on your back on an examination table with your legs spread and your feet resting in stirrups.
The doctor will slowly insert a device called a speculum into your vagina to keep the vaginal walls open and provide access to the cervix. Then the doctor will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix using a tool called a spatula.
The sample will then be sent to a lab to be tested for the presence of abnormal cells.
You might experience minor discomfort both during and after the test. Some women feel slight pressure or pain in the pelvic area when the speculum is inserted and removed.
After the test, you might feel mild pain in the uterine area for the rest of the day. You could also experience very light spotting or vaginal bleeding immediately following the test.
There are two possible results from a Pap smear: normal or abnormal. If your results are normal, you probably won’t need a Pap smear for another three years.
If the test results are abnormal, this does not mean you have cancer. It simply means that there are abnormal cells on your cervix. Some of these cells could be precancerous. Your doctor will be able to tell you what next steps are needed.
In many cases, a colposcopy will be performed following an abnormal Pap smear. This is a procedure that helps the doctor more closely examine the tissues of your cervix and the surrounding area. Your doctor may also take a sample of this tissue for a biopsy.
According to WomensHealth.gov, Pap tests aren’t 100 percent reliable and false positives and negatives do occur (Womens Health). An abnormal test is usually not something to worry about, as long as you follow your doctor’s orders and continue to get routine Pap tests for the next several years.
Written by: Mara Tyler
Published on: Jul 25, 2012
Medically reviewed : George Krucik, MD
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