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Pap Test (Pap Smear)

What is a pap test?

A pap test, also known as a pap smear, is a test to look for changes to the cervix that may indicate cervical cancer or a precancerous condition. The cells taken from the cervix during the pap test can also be used to test for the presence of HPV and can determine the HPV sub-type.

Why is a pap test done?

Pap tests are done to monitor women for changes in their cervix that could be signs of cervical cancer or pre-cancerous conditions (like cervical dysplasia). Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). There are many strains of HPV, but only a few of them are known to cause cancer. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts.

Cervical cancer can usually be prevented with regular pap tests because pap tests can detect early cellular changes in the cervix that often lead to cervical cancer. If those changes are detected, you can have treatment before cancer develops. 

Pap tests can save your life. It’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding testing.

When should a pap test be done?

The guidelines for pap tests have been changing in recent years, and not all doctors agree when a pap test should be done. Most doctors recommend girls and women should have their first pap test at age 21. Depending on personal history and risk factors, doctors usually recommend that women continue to have pap tests until they are at least 65.

If you have had your cervix removed and you do not have a history of cervical cancer or cervical dysplasia, you may not need to have pap tests. If you are older than 65 and haven’t had an abnormal pap test in more than 10 years, you do not likely need to have pap tests.

All women should talk to their doctors about what is right for them and when they should have pap tests.

What to expect from a pap test

There are some things that can interfere with the results of a pap test, so doctors tend to recommend the following for two to four days prior to a scheduled Pap test:

  • Do not put anything in your vagina, such as:
    • Tampons
    • Vaginal creams or medications
    • Vaginal suppositories
    • Do not have sex
    • Do not douche or use vaginal spray or powder

When you’re at the doctor’s office for your exam, here’s what you can expect.

You will be asked to remove your clothes, at least from the waist down. You will be given a gown to put on, and you may be given a sheet or cloth to cover your legs. You will lie on the exam table, put your feet in the stirrups, and move toward the end of the table. Before the doctor examines you, he or she will ask you to relax and let your knees fall outward. The more relaxed you are, the easier the exam will be. 

Once you are in the correct position, the doctor will insert a device called a speculum. This is used to hold your vaginal canal open during the test. Many doctor’s offices will warm the speculum before inserting it to make it more comfortable for you. Once the speculum is in, the doctor will use a long swab to gather cells from your cervix. This should not be painful, but some women do experience discomfort. Let your doctor know if you experience pain.

The swab will only take a few seconds. After the cells are collected, the doctor will remove the speculum. If you are not having a full pelvic exam, you will be able to get up at that point. If you are, the exam will continue. 

Throughout the pelvic exam and pap test, your doctor should tell you what he or she is doing so you will know what to expect and won’t have any surprises. 

After the test, you may bleed a little and may feel some light cramping and discomfort. This should pass within a few hours. If you have heavy bleeding or have severe pain, call your doctor’s office.

What information does my doctor get from a pap test?

The results of the pap test will tell whether there are any abnormal cells on the cervix. These abnormalities may include cervical dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition, cervical cancer, or the presence of HPV. 

What are the next steps after a pap test?

The results of your pap test could take two to three weeks. Normal results may be mailed or emailed to you. If your results are abnormal, your doctor’s office may call you to set up additional tests or procedures. 

If your results are abnormal, do not panic. Not all abnormal pap tests show cancer or even pre-cancerous cell growth. Your doctor will explain your test results and what your next steps will be.

When should you call the doctor?

You should ask your doctor when you should have a pap test. Most women will have them every one to three years, depending on personal history, risk factors and age. 

And any time you have concerns about your reproductive health, you should call your doctor to make an appointment. Whether you’re experiencing pelvic pain, unexplained vaginal bleeding, pain during intercourse, urinary problems, vaginal discharge, itching, redness, or skin changes, we’re here to help. Don’t delay. Most conditions are not serious and can be addressed with treatment; however, serious conditions such as ovarian cancer do not always cause obvious symptoms. If you notice any changes or just don’t feel right, don’t hesitate to call.

Call 800-633-7377 today to schedule an appointment with a Beaumont OB/GYN or other health care practitioner for your next annual exam.