What is a pap smear and how often should I get one?

Getting a regular Pap smear test is one of the best things women can do to maintain their health. A quick medical test called a Pap smear evaluates the general health of the cervical region of the uterus. A Pap smear or Cervical Cytology test is a method of screening for cervical cancer that involves collecting cells from the outer opening of the cervix and analyzing them under microscopy to look for abnormalities. It detects early precancerous changes in the cervix indicating a risk for the development of cervical cancer and it enables early treatment of these changes. 

For very precise test findings, an appropriate technique is required. To obtain the specimen, a sterile speculum is used to visualize the cervix (the outer part of the uterus) and the cervix is cleansed using a cotton swab after the outer opening of the cervix is visualized. Then the specimen is collected using a spatula/brush that is rotated 360 degrees to take a scraping of the outer and inner surfaces of the cervix. The sample collected is investigated under a microscope for abnormalities or for signs of HPV infection using different laboratory methods.

You should adhere to the following advice before your test to make sure that your Pap smear is as successful as possible: 

  • Try not to schedule a Pap smear during your menstrual period. It’s best to avoid this time of your cycle, if possible.
  • Avoid intercourse, heavy vaginal cleaning, or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before having a Pap smear, as these may wash away or obscure abnormal cells. After your Pap smear, you can go about your day without restrictions.

If you are between the ages of 21 to 65 years screening for cervical cell abnormalities and invasive cervical cancer is recommended. And should be performed every 3 years if done alone and every 5 years as co-testing (with HPV DNA test). For people with certain risk factors, frequent tests are recommended. For example, for people living with HIV, screening should be made from the start of sexual activity with shorter periods between screenings usually recommended, because of the different nature of the infection and the disease progression. 

The test should be done at a healthcare facility by a healthcare provider trained to perform the test. And it might not be available at all healthcare facilities.

You are considered to have a negative result if your Pap smear only revealed normal cervical cells. You won’t require any additional care or testing until your subsequent pelvic checkup and Pap smear schedule. A positive result for your Pap smear means that abnormal or atypical cells were found. Even if the test is positive, it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. The type of cells found during your test will determine what the outcome indicates.

A procedure called colposcopy, which uses a specialized magnification tool (colposcope) to examine the tissues of the cervix, vagina, and vulva, may be used by your doctor if your Pap smear results are abnormal. Your doctor may also take a tissue sample (biopsy) from any areas that appear abnormal, and the sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis and a definitive diagnosis. Please talk to your doctor if you have further questions.