Pap Smear

What is a Pap smear procedure?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap (Papanicolaou) test, is a screening procedure used to test for cervical cancer. It may also detect precancerous cervical cells.

  • If you have cervical cancer, finding it early gives you the best chance of successfully treating it.
  • If you don’t have cervical cancer, finding cell changes early can help prevent you from developing cancer.

How is a Pap smear done?

  • A Pap smear is done in the doctor’s office and only takes a few minutes.
  • You will lie on the exam table with your feet resting in stirrups.
  • The doctor will insert a plastic instrument into your vagina that allows the doctor to see your cervix.
  • The doctor will use a small swab or brush to take a sample of cells from your cervix.
  • The swab or brush will be sent to the lab for review.

Pap smears are not painful for most people. You may feel a little pinch or a bit of pressure, which may be uncomfortable. The results will either be negative (normal) or positive (abnormal).

A negative, or normal, result is a good thing. That means your doctor didn’t find any precancerous or cancerous cells on your cervix. You won’t need another Pap smear until you’re due for your next scheduled one.

There are several reasons you could have a positive, or abnormal, Pap smear.

  • Mild inflammation or minor cell changes (dysplasia).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) or other vaginal infection.
  • Cancerous or pre-cancerous cells.

How often is a Pap smear done?

Pap smears should be done on a regular basis for people with cervixes ages 21-65, typically every 3 years.

If you have certain health concerns, your doctor may recommend that you have a Pap smear procedure more often.

Some of these health concerns include:

  • A personal or family history of cervical cancer or a Pap smear that revealed precancerous cells.
  • HIV infection.
  • A weakened immune system due to an organ transplant, chemotherapy, or chronic corticosteroid use.
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth.

Always talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns.

How do I prepare for a Pap smear?