A Pap smear is a test of a sample of cells taken from a woman’s cervix. The test is used to look for changes in the cells of the cervix that show cervical cancer or conditions that may develop into cancer. It is the best tool to detect precancerous conditions and hidden, small tumors that may lead to cervical cancer. If detected early, cervical cancer can be cured.
The Pap Smear Screens for Cervical Cancer
OB/GYN Doctors use a Pap test to screen for cancer of the cervix. In the office, the doctor collects a sample of cells from your cervix. These are examined in the lab to find precancerous and cancer cells. The screening test should start at age 21. It’s very effective in both preventing and finding cervical cancer early enough to cure it.
Pap screen testing should begin at age 21. Routine screening is recommended every two years for women 21-29 years old. For certain women 30 years and older who have had three consecutive normal screening test results, testing can be done every three years.
For low-risk women 30 years and older who have a normal Pap test result and negative HPV test, rescreening should be done in three years.
Women with certain risk factors, such as being HIV positive (carrying the virus that causes AIDS), a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, organ transplant, chronic steroid use, or have a history of diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth, should continue to be screened more frequently.
How is the Pap Screening Performed?
The Pap smear is done during a pelvic exam. A doctor uses a device called a speculum to widen the opening of the vagina so that the cervix can be examined. A plastic spatula and small brush are used to collect cells from the cervix. After the cells are taken, they are placed into a solution. The solution is sent to a lab for testing.
Is the Pap Smear Painful?
A Pap smear is not painful, but the pelvic exam may be a little uncomfortable.
Results: What do They Mean?
A normal Pap smear means the cells from the cervix look normal. An abnormal Pap smear means the cells do not look normal. Sometimes repeat Pap smears are needed. Different tests also may need to be done, such as a colposcopy (the use of a special microscope to examine the cervix and vagina).
Pap smears can occasionally show signs of infection but cannot be relied on to screen for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Other tests are necessary to determine the presence of an STD.
There are several things you can do to help make the Pap smear as accurate as possible. These include avoidance of sex, douching and vaginal creams for 48 hours before the test. An abnormal Pap smear does not necessarily mean that cancer cells were found during the examination. There are many causes for abnormal Pap smear results. Your doctor will evaluate the results to determine if further testing is necessary.
A repeat Pap smear may be necessary if you had an infection at the time of the test or if there were not enough cells collected during the test. Since decreased levels of the female hormone estrogen also can influence Pap smear results, menopausal women may need to take estrogen before they repeat the test.
If the results of the repeat Pap smear are still abnormal, your doctor may recommend that you have a colposcopy to further evaluate the problem.
Are Pap Smears Necessary After a Total Hysterectomy?
Pap smears may be discontinued after a total hysterectomy (total removal of the uterus and cervix), unless the surgery was performed for cervical pre-invasive or invasive cancer or other uterine cancers. Women who have had a partial hysterectomy with the cervix remaining should continue to have routine Pap smears.
Check with your OB/GYN physician to determine if you still need Pap smears. Even women who no longer require Pap smears should see their doctor annually for pelvic exams.
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