A Pap smear, formally known as the Papanicolaou test, is a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and examined using a microscope. The test is used to detect cell abnormalities that could potentially be a sign of cervical cancer or other conditions, such as infection, HPV, and inflammation. A Pap smear is the best means to discover precancerous conditions and concealed tumors that may lead to cervical cancer.
So, what exactly happens during a Pap smear? Well, we’re glad you asked. When performing a Pap smear, your gynecologist will insert a speculum into the vagina in order to widen the opening and exam both the cervix and the vagina. The doctor then takes a sample of the cervical cells using either a small spatula or brush. These samples are then placed into a solution, transferred into a small glass slide, and sent to a laboratory for cytological examination.
The primary benefit of a Pap smear test is that it screens for cervical cancer and has saved the lives of many women since it’s discovery in the mid-1900s. Cervical cancer occurs when cervical cells become abnormal and expand uncontrollably over time. The cancer cells invade deep into the cervical tissue and, in advanced cases, the cancer cells spread to other organs in the body.
Pap test results can take as long as three weeks. If your test results come back normal, you can wait up to three years before your next Pap smear.
If a test indicates that something is abnormal, it does not mean that you have cancer, but an abnormal test does mean that the cells of the cervix do not look normal. Because Pap smears are a screening test and not a diagnostic test, it cannot tell for certain that cancer is present. An abnormal test could indicate that there is inflammation or minor cell changes called dysplasia – these cells look abnormal but are not cancerous.
Whatever the case may be, your doctor will contact you in order to schedule a follow-up. In many cases, immediate treatment can prevent cervical cancer from developing, so early detection and following up is critical.
Most issues that end up being non-cancerous but are still detected in a Pap smear tend to clear up or go back to normal on their own. In order to verify that this is the case, your doctor will probably recommend having a follow-up test within the next few months.
Women should have a Pap smear every two years starting at the age of 21. After age 30, you may choose to receive the HPV test, performed at the same time as your Pap smear. You may also choose to decrease the frequency to every three years if you’re low-risk and have always had normal results up to this age.
Despite what many women believe, you are never too old for a Pap test. Most women over 65 do not need Pap smears, but it may be necessary if you have had treatment for precancerous or cancerous cells in the past 20 years. However, women that have had regular screenings in the previous 10 years and haven’t had precancerous cells found in the last 20 years should stop cervical cancer screenings.
There are certain things that you must avoid doing prior to getting a Pap smear:
You’ll also want to avoid scheduling your Pap smear during your period because although the test can be done during a menstrual cycle, it is best to avoid that if possible. Cervical screening results are not always active and can sometimes show abnormal cells where they are not present. These are all things that can potentially cause a false-negative result due to the presence of inflamed cells.
The momentary discomfort of a Pap smear is well worth the lifesaving results that can come from them. Pap smears are one of the most reliable cancer screenings currently available.
It is important that you are taking your health needs into account that are specific to being a woman and not simply ignoring them. At Mid-Atlantic Women’s Care, we want to make sure you are healthy through all the seasons of your life. During your well-woman exam, your provider can screen for health problems and answer any of your questions and concerns.