Overview of a Pap Smear
A pap smear is a vital test for detecting cervical cancer. It is a screening tool designed to spot abnormal cellular growth in the cervix area. When these abnormal cells are detected early enough, treatment can be administered before they turn cancerous. Doctors like to perform pap smears and HPV tests together. Since HPV is a primary cause of cervical cancer, doctors feel it is necessary to perform a pap smear while testing a patient for HPV.
Some healthcare providers refer to pap smears as pap tests, but they are the same type of test. A pap smear can detect whether the early signs of cervical cancer exist in your cervix. These early signs would be abnormal cells growing in your cervix. If your doctor discovers abnormal cells in your cervix, they will extract a sample of your cervical cells to study closely under a microscope. Once they have a magnified view of the cells, the doctor can see if the signs of cancer are present. In addition, your doctor can also see signs of inflammation or infection in your cervical cells as well.
Overall, a pap smear is a vital screening procedure for detecting cervical cancer, precancerous cervical cells (abnormal cellular growth), and the sexually transmitted infection HPV (Human papillomavirus).
Overview of the Cervix
The lower end of a woman’s uterus has a narrow passage that connects it to her vaginal canal. This narrow passage is her cervix. For women who are not pregnant, the normal function of the cervix is to produce protective mucus that stops infectious bacteria from entering the uterus. But the cervix also has additional functions for women who are pregnant.
When a woman has sex with a male partner, his sperm journeys through her vaginal canal before entering the cervix. From there, the sperm enters her uterus and fertilizes her eggs to start a pregnancy.
The cervical walls close to secure the fetus inside the uterus during a woman’s pregnancy. But when the woman is ready to give birth, the cervical walls open to allow the baby a passage to get out.
Pap Smear FAQs
Pap Smears vs. Pelvic Exams: What is the Difference?
A pelvic exam is a different text than a pap smear. For example, if your doctor wants you to undergo a pelvic exam, they want to look for signs of cancer or infection in your pelvis and vagina. This requires your doctor to study various areas of your reproductive system, especially your uterus and ovaries.
A pap smear mainly concerns the cervix more than any other part of the reproductive system. You take it to detect signs of cervical cancer or infection.
Pap Smears vs. HPV Tests: What is the Difference?
Pap smears and HPV tests both concerns the cervix. However, HPV tests look for signs of viruses that could potentially increase your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Since nearly 80 million Americans have the sexually transmitted infection HPV, it is crucial for sexually active people to undergo HPV and pap testing. Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer, but some do.
You can usually get the HPV test and pap smear simultaneously. After all, the doctor follows a similar procedure by extracting a sample of your cervical cells and sending them to a laboratory for advanced testing. So if you’re getting both tests, the doctor will notify the lab technician to look for signs of HPV, cancerous cells, and abnormal cells.
Can a Pap Smear Discover a Sexually Transmitted Infection like HPV?
No, a pap smear doesn’t detect sexually transmitted infections like HPV. So if you’re trying to find out whether you have gonorrhea, chlamydia, or HPV, your doctor can give you a blood test or swab your cervix to look for signs of these infections.
Should You Undergo a Pap Smear?
Health experts recommend pap testing for women ages 21 and older and HPV testing for women ages 30 and over. As for the frequency of the testing, it depends on your health history, sexual activity, and age.
- Women who are older than 65 years of age usually don’t need pap smears or HPV tests if their last test results were normal.
- Women over 21 and under 65 should undergo a pap test every 3 years.
- Women over 30 and under 65 should undergo the HPV test every 5 years.
The only circumstances requiring a woman 65 or older to get a pap smear or HPV test would be the following:
- The woman had cervical cancer in the past and received treatment for it
- The woman’s mother took diethylstilbestrol (DES) medication while pregnant. DES is a medication known for increasing the cervical cancer risk in the mother’s offspring.
- The woman has contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or another health condition that has compromised her immune system.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your risk of developing cervical cancer, regardless of age. They can guide you accordingly.
Does a Total Hysterectomy Prevent Cervical Cancer?
When a woman undergoes a surgical procedure to remove her cervix and uterus from her body, it is called a total hysterectomy. If the woman has not had cervical cancer, she may not need to get a pap smear again after this procedure.
Of course, you should consult your doctor about whether to get pap tests after a total hysterectomy. They’ll weigh various risk factors to see if they are still necessary for you. However, you likely won’t need a pap smear if the total hysterectomy remedied a noncancerous condition like uterine fibroids.
What Do I Have To Do Before a Pap Smear?
You have to follow a few preparatory guidelines within the days leading up to your pap smear.
The guidelines are as follows:
- Schedule your pap smear within five or more days following your last period
- Refrain from using vaginal medicines, creams, and tampons for two days before the pap smear
- Refrain from using birth control jollies and foams for two days before the pap smear
- Refrain from using douches and lubricants for two days before the pap smear
- Refrain from vaginal sex for two days before the pap smear
Failure to follow these guidelines could cause your test results to be inaccurate.
What are the Steps of a Pap Smear Procedure?
Your doctor will place a plastic or metal speculum device into your vaginal canal to hold it open. By doing this, the doctor can access the cervix and gently extract a few cervical cells with a small spatula or brush. It is not a painful procedure. The worst you’ll feel is mild discomfort as the speculum holds open your vagina.
What is the Duration of a Pap Smear?
The pap smear should only take a couple of minutes to complete. It can be done inside your doctor’s office without the need to visit a special clinic.
What Happens After the Pap Smear?
Your doctor will put the sample of your cervical cells into a liquid-filled jar or tube. After that, they’ll send the secured cell sample to a laboratory for further examination by a pathologist or laboratory specialist. An advanced microscope will be used to study the sample up close for signs of HPV or cancer.
Is the Pap Smear a Safe Procedure?
Yes, it is safe to receive a pap smear. In rare cases, a woman may develop light vaginal bleeding, but it is nothing severe. The worst-case scenario would be getting inaccurate results from the test. But if you follow the preparatory guidelines, you shouldn’t have any false-negative results.
Does the Pap Smear Cause Pain or Discomfort?
Most patients don’t feel any pain or cramping during a pap smear procedure. There is a chance you could feel mild discomfort or vaginal bleeding, but it should go away fast. In the rare case of experiencing mild discomfort and vaginal bleeding for over 24 hours, your doctor can consult you further on how to deal with it.
Should I Avoid a Pap Smear If I’m On My Period?
Yes, it is a good idea to avoid a pap smear if you’re on your period. Otherwise, the pap test could give you inaccurate results. The best time to receive a pap smear is after your menstrual period. Check with your doctor for clarification because they can recommend the best time to schedule you for a pap smear.
How Long Will It Take to Receive My Pap Test Results?
The average duration for receiving the pap test results is three weeks after the procedure date. That is how long it usually takes for the laboratory to finish studying the cervical cell sample.
What is the Meaning of the Pap Test Results?
The pap test results will indicate three possible findings: Normal, Unclear, or Abnormal.
- Normal means no abnormal cells or diseases were discovered.
- Unclear means the laboratory specialists could not tell if the cervical cells were normal or diseased. In this case, your doctor will want you to take another test immediately.
- Abnormal means your cervical cells show signs of abnormalities, possibly due to disease or precancer.
Your doctor can go over your pap test results with you so that you understand them better.
Do I Have Cervical Cancer If My Pap Test Results Indicate “Abnormal” Cells?
Abnormal results don’t necessarily mean you have cancer or even precancerous cells. Instead, it means your cervical cells appeared unusual under a microscope. This may or may not indicate precancer.
Your doctor will want you to have a follow-up session if you receive Abnormal pap test results. Your doctor will probably want to give you additional testing and consultation to understand the condition better.
What Kind of Follow-Up Tests Are Needed If I Have Abnormal Pap Test Results?
Your doctor will want to perform a colposcopy or a second pap smear if you have abnormal results on your pap test. A second pap smear may be requested to verify the accuracy of the first pap test results.
However, a pap smear cannot diagnose a patient with cervical cancer. So if you’ve received abnormal results on one or two pap tests, your doctor will need to perform a colposcopy to determine if you have cervical cancer.
During a colposcopy procedure, the doctor uses a microscope device called a colposcope to study the vaginal and cervical linings. If they notice any abnormalities in the tissues, they will extract a tissue sample from the linings. Then, those samples will get sent to a laboratory for a closer examination.
If the lab specialists determine you have precancerous cells in your cervix, you still have a good chance of successfully treating them before they develop into cancerous cells. That is why it’s imperative to schedule yourself for a pap smear every three years. The sooner the abnormal cells are discovered, the better your chance of avoiding cervical cancer.
Will My Pap Test Look for Ovarian Cysts?
No, a pap smear is not a test for detecting ovarian cysts. If you’re worried about the potential for developing ovarian cysts, you should ask your doctor to give you a pelvic exam. It is the type of examination where your doctor feels for lumps or unusual mass on your pelvis and uterus. If they detect any unusual mass, it indicates you have a cyst there.
From that point, your doctor will want to perform more tests on the cyst to understand why it is there. They will also discuss which treatments are best for you going forward.
Should I Still Get a Pap Smear If I Don’t Have Sex?
Yes, you should still get a pap smear regardless of your level of sexual activity. The reason is that some cervical cancers don’t form because of sex. Therefore, any woman over 21 years old should get a pap smear.