Top 5 questions about Pap tests asked and answered

With International Women’s Day and Cancer Awareness Month both around the corner, it’s an excellent time to shine the spotlight on a test that not only detects, but also helps prevent a common female cancer.

Over the last 50 years, the Pap test has helped reduce cervical cancer rates by about 70 percent – yes, 70 percent! Developed by Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, the test truly is one of the most important and effective cancer screening exams out there.

Even so, many women have questions about what exactly it is and how it works. So, to help alleviate confusion (and possibly fears), following are some of the most asked questions regarding the Pap test.

1. What is a Pap test?

A Pap test (also known as a Pap smear) is a procedure to check for abnormal cell changes that can indicate the presence or likelihood of cervical cancer in women. It involves the collection of a small number of cells from the cervix – the bottom, narrow portion of the uterus located at the top end of the vagina.

In addition to screening for abnormalities in the cervix, it can help diagnose precancerous conditions of the vagina and vaginal cancer, as well as diagnose inflammation and/or infection in the lower female reproductive tract.

2. Who should have Pap tests (and how often)?

While this is something every woman should discuss with her physician, generally it is recommended that testing begins at age 21 and continues every three years (when tests are normal) until age 65. Certain risk factors, such as a history of smoking, family cancer history, HIV infection, weakened immune system or previous smears with abnormalities, may result in more frequent testing.

3. How do I prepare for it?

Aside from ensuring your bladder is empty before the test, there isn’t much preparation involved. Most of the prep work surrounds the actual timing of the appointment.

Don’t book a Pap smear when it’s likely to occur during your menstrual cycle or if being treated for a vaginal or cervical infection. Avoid intercourse in the 24 hours prior to the test; likewise, don’t use vaginal douches or medicines, vaginal sprays or powders, or contraceptive creams for at least 24 hours before a Pap test.

4. What can I expect during a Pap test and does it hurt?

Even though it can be a bit uncomfortable, the good thing about a Pap test is that it’s quick and typically painless.

During the test, a patient lies on her back on the examination table and places her feet into metal stirrups extending from either side of the table’s end. Once situated with legs apart, the doctor or nurse places a speculum (a clear plastic or metal device) into the vagina. This device keeps the vagina open to allow for visual examination of the upper region of the vagina and lower cervix. Using a small swab, spatula and/or brush, the health practitioner will gently scrape the cervix’s surface to pick up cells. (Sometimes samples of cells from the vagina may also be taken during the test.) The collected cell sample is placed in a container and sent to a lab to be examined.

The whole process takes only a few minutes. Following the test, some women may experience light bleeding from the vagina.

5. What happens if my results are abnormal?

If your results come back as abnormal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a precancerous condition or cancer. Abnormal cervix or vagina cells are classified based on what kind of cell they are and how different they look from normal cells. Some abnormal cells return to normal on their own so treatment may not be necessary, while other abnormal cells or changes may develop into cancer over time if they aren’t treated.

Infection with HPV (human papilloma virus – a sexually transmitted infection) is a common cause of changes to cells in the cervix, and sometimes these cells can become precancerous. Other changes may be caused by viral, bacterial or yeast infections; non-cancerous growths, such as cysts or polyps; or inflammation.

Depending on the abnormality, your physician may do more tests and procedures or suggest follow-up care or treatment. If you have an abnormal Pap smear when pregnant, your doctor will talk to you about options for the next steps.

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – if it has been a while since your last Pap test, make an appointment to have one today and take charge of your health!