What is a Pap smear?
The Pap smear (named for Greek doctor George Papanicolaou) tests for cervical cancer. It is a simple test during which your doctor or nurse takes a small sample of cells from your cervix with a swab that looks like a tiny pipe cleaner. You may feel some discomfort or merely pressure.
During your Pap smear, you may also be tested for Human papilloma virus (HPV).
Regular Pap tests remain the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Many experts believe that cervical cancer deaths in the US, which currently stand at about 5,000 a year, could be completely wiped out if every woman received adequate Pap test screening. Standard Pap tests are very inexpensive and are widely available free for low-income women.
Pap tests sometimes come back with the diagnosis of ASCUS, which means "atypical squamous or glandular cells of undetermined significance." If your Pap test indicates early changes in your cells, you will have another Pap smear. Then if the results are still abnormal, you may have a colposcopy, which examines the surface of the vagina and cervix.
We recommend Pap smear screening for all women over the age of 21. The frequency of Pap smear screening depends on your age:
- If you are between the ages of 21 and 30, we recommend that you have a Pap smear every 1-2 years.
- Over the age of 30, if you are at low risk of contracting HPV (if you have had at least three consecutive normal screenings), you can wait up to three years between screenings.
- A woman over the age of 70 can safely stop having Pap smears if she has a recent history of three negative Pap smear results, and does not have a significant history of cervical precancer in the recent past.
How do I prepare for the test?
You don't need to do anything before the test, but we ask that for 48 hours beforehand, you do not:
- Use tampons
- Have sex
- Use vaginal deodorant sprays or powders