What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear is a test that checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
What does it test for?
The Pap smear tests for abnormal changes in the cervical cells. The Pap smear may also detect viral infections of the cervix, such as genital warts and herpes. It may detect vaginal infections such as yeast infections or trichomonas. Sometimes the Pap smear can give information about your hormones, especially progesterone and estrogen.
Most women should get a Pap smear at least every year. Your health care provider will recommend how often you should be tested based on your risk factors for cervical cancer. You are at an increased risk for cervical cancer if:
You have had an abnormal Pap smear.
You began to have sexual intercourse at an early age.
You have a history of many sexual partners.
You or your sexual partner has or has had genital wart virus infection.
You have had vulvar or vaginal cancer.
Your sexual partner's previous partner had cervical cancer or abnormal cervical cells.
Your sexual partner has or had cancer of the penis.
You smoke cigarettes.
Your mother took the hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) when she was pregnant with you.
Your immune system is weakened, for example, because you you have had a transplant, you are taking immunosuppressive drugs, or you have AIDS.
Your health care provider may not recommend continuing Pap smears beyond age 65 if previous Pap smears were consistently normal. However, an annual exam continues to be important for other health reasons, including early detection of possible breast and vulvar cancer.
How do I prepare for a Pap smear?
Do not douche or use vaginal creams during the 2 days before the test. Do not have intercourse within 24 hours of the Pap smear because it can cause inaccurate test results.
What happens during the procedure?
A Pap smear takes only a few seconds and is performed as part of a routine pelvic examination. You lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet apart. The health care provider inserts a speculum into the vagina. The speculum is a tool that holds open the walls of the vagina. Your provider uses a special swab, brush, or wooden stick to wipe off some cells from the cervix. The cells are sent to a laboratory to be viewed under a microscope.
What are the benefits of this procedure?
Pap smears can detect precancerous conditions. If these conditions are discovered, there is a good chance that simple treatment will prevent the development of cancer. Pap smears are also useful for detecting some types of cervical or vaginal infections.