What to Expect from a Pap Smear
A Papanicolaou test, commonly referred to as a Pap test or Pap smear, is a procedure that allows doctors to take a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix and test them to see if they’re precancerous or cancerous. Pap tests can also screen women for certain types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Previous guidelines for getting Pap smears differ from today’s recommendations. Doctors now recommend women start getting regular Pap smears at the age of 25 and then, depending on the results, undergo the screening more or less often, usually on a cycle of three to five years.
Women older than 60 who have a history of normal results may be able to stop getting Pap tests altogether.
What the procedure is like
When you go in for your pap smear, you’ll be led to a private room. Once there, you may have to answer questions about your health and sexual history. You will then have to either undress from the waist down or dress in a gown that has been provided.
A gynecologist will enter the room and ask questions regarding your sexual health and answer questions you have. If you’re more comfortable with a female gynecologist, you can request one when you make your appointment.
You will then be asked to lie back on the exam table, spread your knees apart and put your feet in stirrups that elevate your legs. Your gynecologist will insert a speculum, an instrument that holds the walls of your vagina open, and use a flat brush or a small spatula to get a cell sample from your cervix. Some women report that this feels like menstrual cramps, but it’s different for everyone.
Your gynecologist will then carry out a pelvic exam, feeling around the outside of your vulva and pressing on your lower abdomen to check for irregularities. They may even slide two fingers into your vagina to feel if anything is abnormal.
What happens after your test
After the Pap smear is complete, your sample is sent to a lab where it will be tested for signs of cervical cancer. If requested, it can also be tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. You’ll later be informed of your results. If nothing abnormal was detected, you have a negative result and you’re good to go until your next Pap smear.
However, if your results were positive, you may have to return for another procedure, such as a colposcopy, in which your gynecologist will use a magnifying instrument to get a better look at the tissues of your vulva, vagina and cervix. You may also have to undergo a biopsy, during which your gynecologist will take tissue samples from areas that seem abnormal so they can be sent to a lab to be tested.
A positive test doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer or precancerous cells. For example, your results could be an indication of HPV (human papillomavirus), a yeast infection or inflammation that will heal on its own.
The probability of having cancerous cells is low if you’re young, so there’s no need to worry excessively about your first Pap smear. Just relax, get it done and wait patiently for your results. If something is abnormal, remember that your gynecologist will help you decide on a treatment plan.