Pap test is also known as a Papanicolaou test, Pap smear, Pap test, cervical smear, or smear test. During a physical exam, a Pap test is taken to collect cells from the cervix. These cells are examined under a microscope for abnormal cell growth.
Cervical cancer: it’s a term that strikes fear into almost any woman who hears it. But a Pap smear — a quick test performed as part of your regular OB/GYN check-up — can identify the signs of cervical cancer so it can be caught and treated at an early stage. Or, even better, give you the all-clear.
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear is a quick test performed by a gynecologist that can identify cervical cancer and the precancerous changes that may precede it. The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is transmitted through sexual intercourse or intimate skin-to-skin contact.
When performing a Pap smear, your physician will insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina to dilate your cervix — the opening of your uterus. She will then swab the cervix, collecting a sample of cells. These are sent to a lab for analysis.
A Pap smear only takes a few minutes and is generally pain-free. You may feel a pinching sensation or pressure when the speculum is inserted and the cells are swabbed. You will usually get your results within a few days to weeks.
What if my Pap smear is positive?
While a negative Pap smear means that you do not have cervical cancer, a positive Pap smear does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. A positive Pap smear may be inconclusive and often requires further testing.
A Pap smear may come back positive if you have:
- Inflammation: This may clear up on its own or with antibiotics.
- Minor cell changes: Watch and wait. Get another Pap smear in 2-3 months.
- Moderate to severe cell changes: This may be an indication of precancerous changes or the presence of cancer. Further tests are needed.
How often should I get a Pap smear?
The OB/GYN specialists at MemorialCare follow the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended screening guidelines for Pap smears:
- First Pap smear at age 21
- Every three years from ages 21 to 64
- Stop screening at age 65, depending on history
Can I prevent HPV infection?
Practicing safe sex may reduce your chances of becoming infected with HPV. Regular Pap smears will help you stay on top of an infection if one does occur. For women aged 9-26, an HPV vaccine is also available.