The Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) is a way to examine cells collected from the cervix and vagina. This test can show the presence of infection, inflammation, abnormal cells, or cancer.
A Pap test is simple, quick, and painless; it can be done in a doctor's office, a clinic, or a hospital. While a woman lies on an exam table, the clinician inserts a speculum into her vagina to open it. To do the test, a sample of cells is taken from in and around the cervix with a wooden scraper or a small cervical brush or broom. The specimen (or smear) is placed on a glass slide or rinsed in liquid fixative and sent to a laboratory for examination.
The Pap smear is a very simple, but often life saving, test that requires only a few minutes to complete. To maximize the results of the Pap smear, schedule the exam for a time when you will not be menstruating. Also, you should not douche for several days prior to the test.
Get a Pap test every year, unless you are in a low-risk group for cervical cancer and your doctor advises that it is okay to have one this often. Patients in the low-risk group are those that have had only one sexual partner in their life and who have not had a previous abnormal Pap smear. If you are in this group, and you have had three consecutive annual Pap smears that were normal, you are probably safe in having a Pap smear every three years rather than every year.
Your first Pap smear should be done at the time you become 21 years of age even if you become sexually active earlier than this. There is no upper age limit for the Pap test. Even women who have gone through the change of life (menopause) need a Pap test every year.
Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix) should talk with their doctor about whether or not to continue to have regular Pap tests. If the hysterectomy was performed for treatment of a precancerous or cancerous condition, the end of the vaginal canal still needs to be sampled for abnormal changes. If the uterus (including the cervix) was removed because of a noncancerous condition such as fibroids, routine Pap tests may not be necessary. However, it is still important for a woman to have regular gynecologic examinations as part of her health care.
A woman should have this test when she is not menstruating; the best time is between 10 and 20 days after the first day of the menstrual period. For about 2 days before a Pap test, she should avoid douching, or using vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies (except as directed by a physician). These may wash away or hide abnormal cells.
Thomas G. Stovall, M.D.
Dr. Stovall is a Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee.
Date Published: 2004-03-09
Updated by Alan P. Altman, M.D. 2010-12-26
*The recommendations and information provided by this Web site are for educational purposes only. This Web site does not contain comprehensive coverage of the topics addressed, and is not a substitute for direct consultation with your health care provider. Always consult a health care provider regarding your specific condition. Trademarks referred to are the property of their respective owners.
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