A Pap smear is a medical exam used to determine if a woman has cervical cancer. A Pap smear is also called a Pap test. It is performed by a doctor, usually as part of a general pelvic exam. During a Pap test, the doctor collects cells from your cervix (located at the bottom of your uterus). These cells are then analyzed by a lab. The lab looks for anything unusual about the cells.
Why should I have a Pap smear?
Pap smears are an important part of women’s health. They are your best method for catching cancer earlier. In fact, a Pap smear can even detect pre-cancerous changes to your cells. If you do have these changes, your doctor can treat what is causing them. Doing so may prevent the cancer from developing.
Path to improved health
When should I begin having Pap smears?
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) does not recommend Pap smears for women who are under the age of 21.
The AAFP recommends Pap smears for women ages 21 to 65.
The AAFP recommends against screening for cervical cancer (Pap smears) in women older than age 65 years who have had adequate prior screening and are not otherwise at high risk for cervical cancer.
How often do I need a Pap smear?
The AAFP recommends screening for cervical cancer in women ages 21 to 65, with a Pap smear every 3 years. Women ages 30 to 65 who want to lengthen the screening interval can opt to do a Pap smear with human Papillomavirus (HPV) testing every 5 years.
Is there anything I should do to get ready for my Pap smear?
There is a list of things you should avoid before your Pap smear. For two days before your Pap smear, do not:
- have sex
- use spermicides
- use vaginal creams
- use tampons
- use vaginal deodorants.
You also should not have a Pap smear during your menstrual period. Any or all of these things could make abnormal cells harder to identify.
What will my doctor do during the Pap smear?
First, your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina. A speculum is a tool that holds the vagina open so that the doctor can examine your cervix. The speculum does that by spreading the vaginal walls apart. Next, your doctor will collect cells from your cervix using a long cotton swab, small soft brush or small spatula with a long handle.
Will it hurt?
The exam may make you feel uncomfortable, but it is not usually painful. When your doctor collects the cells from the cervix, you may feel slight pressure or a quick pinch. The entire exam takes only a few minutes.
How will I feel afterward?
You should feel completely normal after your Pap smear. But you may have some spotting (a small amount of bleeding).
How long will it take to get my results?
You may hear from your doctor in as little as 1 week, but it may take up to 3 weeks to get your results. It depends on your doctor and the lab.
Do I need a Pap test after menopause?
You should continue to have Pap smears, even after menopause. You should have them until you are more than 65 years of age, unless you fall into one of the other categories.
What if I’ve had a hysterectomy?
The AAFP does not recommend Pap smears for women who have had a hysterectomy for a non-cancerous disease.
Things to consider
If you are notified that your Pap smear is abnormal, it does not mean that you have cancer. There are many reasons that your Pap smear results may be flagged as abnormal. Most of the time, an abnormal result is caused by an infection of your cervix. Or it could be a poor sample.
Your doctor may perform another Pap smear immediately. Or your doctor may have you wait several months before doing another Pap smear. In these cases, he or she could be waiting for the abnormal cells to clear themselves. Even though it can be scary, know that an abnormal Pap smear is most often nothing to worry about.
If your results are still abnormal or not conclusive (certain), your doctor may perform a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a procedure where your doctor will use a small microscope to look at your cervix. He or she also may remove a piece of tissue during this exam. This is called a biopsy. The tissue will be examined in a lab to determine if cancerous cells are present.
If your doctor does find cancer, he or she will discuss treatment options. These will depend on the stage of cancer you have. Cervical cancer is treatable—and curable—if caught in the early stages.
Questions for your doctor
- Do you recommend that I have a Pap smear?
- Should a gynecologist perform my Pap smear?
- Is there anything I can do to prevent cervical cancer?
- Am I at greater risk for cervical cancer if it runs in my family?
- Are there any symptoms of cervical cancer?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.