What is a PAP smear?
A Pap smear, also known as a Pap test, is a screening procedure for cervical cancer or precancerous conditions of the cervix. A Pap smear is used to diagnose inflammation or an infection. A Pap smear is one of the most important parts of a gynecological exam. The test is your best protection against cervical cancer.
Preparing for a Pap smear
Prior to a Pap test, you should tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or suspect you might be. You should also inform your provider if you are allergic or sensitive to latex. If you are pregnant or suspect you are, you should let your doctor or nurse practitioner know.
You should schedule your Pap test when you are not menstruating. The optimal time to have the test is 10 to 20 days after the first day of your period. To get the most accurate results, avoid vaginal intercourse, using tampons, and douching 48 hours before your Pap smear. You should also avoid spermicidal creams, foams, or inserts.
Specific conditions may interfere with a Pap smear including:
- Antibiotic medications
- Vaginal lubricants
What happens during a Pap smear?
A Pap test is performed by a physician or nurse practitioner along with a pelvic exam. You will be asked to undress from the waist down and given a paper gown to cover your lower body. Next, you will lay on an exam table and place your feet in stirrups, to hold your feet in place during your examination. Typically, stirrups are cold, so you may want to have a pair of socks, just in case.
During the Pap test, your doctor or nurse practitioner gently inserts a lubricated speculum and will use it to widen your vagina to examine the vagina and cervix. The doctor or nurse practitioner then obtains a sample of cells from the cervix, using a scraping tool or small brush that looks like a long mascara brush.
If you also need an HPV test, your provider will take a sample of cells for this test as well. The sample(s) are placed on a glass slide or in a liquid fixative and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Because of the positioning on the table and the nature of the test, some women are naturally anxious about having a Pap smear. However, the test should not hurt. For a variety of reasons, some women experience mild discomfort, while others have no sensation at all. Fortunately, the procedure does not take long and typically wraps up in about five minutes. If you experience any soreness during your Pap test, alert your doctor or nurse practitioner.
What you can expect after a Pap test
Most women can resume your day to day activities immediately following the test if you have no physical strain or discomfort. However, you may need to take a few minutes to relax after the procedure before you go home if you experienced any pain. Scaping the cervix may cause a small amount of bleeding. For that reason, you may want to bring a sanitary pad for any spotting.
Alert your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Fever or chills
Pap test results typically take a few days to process. Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure, based on your test.
You should remember that a Pap smear is a screening test, not a diagnostic test. It cannot definitively determine if you have cervical cancer. But Pap smears can detect the majority of cervical cancers at a stage when they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Pap smear results
It’s crucial to know what your results mean. A negative result means that your cervix is healthy. In this case, negative is good. On the contrary, a positive result indicates the presence of abnormal cells. Your doctor may call this an abnormal Pap.
It is important to remember this is a test, not a diagnosis. About one in ten Pap smears are abnormal, though most are not serious. Abnormal results happen for a range of reasons. An abnormal Pap test result may mean more testing, sometimes including tests to see if cancer or any pre-cancerous cells are present.
Further testing will be required to determine if you have an infection, inflammation, a yeast infection, or a sexually transmitted disease. Researchers believe that cervical cancer is directly related to HPV.
Abnormal (positive) test results may indicate the cells examined are:
- Atypical, but not necessarily cancerous
Patients who have abnormal results should undergo additional testing for cervical cancer, including a colposcopy, so their doctor can further examine the cervix, vagina, and vulva and obtain additional samples for lab analysis.
It is important to note that the Pap smear is only used to screen for cervical cancer. It is not used to test for other gynecologic cancers such as ovarian, uterine, vaginal, or vulvar cancer.
Because cervical cancer develops slowly, regular Pap tests are important. Early detection of precancerous cells and treatment dramatically increases your chances of surviving cervical cancer. Protecting your health with a Pap test is advisable. You can also remind your family and friends they can prevent cervical cancer with regular Pap tests.
You can also lower your chances of getting cervical cancer by getting an HPV vaccine if you are 26 years old or younger. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a type of HPV that is passed from one person to another through genital contact. Typically, women never know they have HPV because it stays hidden.
If you’ve had cervical cancer, you need a different plan to check for cancer recurrence. Keep in mind, cervical cancer survival rates have increased tremendously in recent years, due to improvements in screening and treatment.
Why might I need a repeat Pap smear?
A repeat test might be necessary if you had an infection at the time of your initial test or if an insufficient number of cells were collected. Regardless of the reason, an abnormal Pap will require another Pap smear in a few months.
How often do I need a Pap smear?
According to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, women should begin having Pap smears at age 21. The guidelines also state:
- Women ages 21-29 should have a Pap smear every three years
- Women ages 30-65 can get an HPV test every five years, a Pap test every three years or a combination every five years
- Women over 65 who have had recent negative tests can forgo testing if they wish
These are general guidelines—you should always follow your doctor’s advice regarding the frequency of your cervical cancer screenings.
Women who have the following risk factors may need to have more frequent Pap smears:
- A weakened immune system caused by chemotherapy, organ transplant or chronic corticosteroid use
- A cervical cancer diagnosis
- HIV infection
- A previous abnormal Pap test that showed precancerous cells
Visit an UrgentMED clinic for your next Pap smear
Pap smears are available at the walk-in clinics that are part of the UrgentMED network. Our experienced and professional staff can perform a routine gynecological exam. All of our locations are friendly, clean, and professional.
If you are unable to schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN, you do not have to wait for months or weeks to see a doctor. Each UrgentMED location is open seven days a week. Our patients have the same level of care as their physician’s office and typically experience short wait times.
UrgentMED accepts more than two dozen insurance plans. Affordable options are available if you don’t have health insurance. Visit one of our 14 convenient Southern California locations today for your next Pap smear.