A Pap smear is used to screen for cervical cancer as well as a condition called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, where abnormal cells grow on the cervix.
Developed by Greek scientist Georgios Papanicolaou (the “Pap” in “Pap smear”), the Pap test is particularly good at detecting cervical cells that have changed because of cancer.
The test also looks for abnormal cells known as precancerous cells. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that is usually transmitted sexually. It can cause changes in these cells, leading to cervical cancer later on. The test, therefore, is a preemptive way to detect the internal early signs of cervical cancer.
During a Pap smear, your doctor will collect some cells from your cervix. You will be asked to undress fully or partially and may be given a hospital gown to wear. You will lay down on your back and put your feet up into raised stirrups. This provides the doctor with easy access to your vagina. The doctor will then insert a tool known as a speculum into your vaginal opening. This tool holds your vagina open so that the doctor can easily see your cervix at the end of your vaginal canal.
Using a soft brush or a swab, the doctor will then take a few cells from the surface and inside of your cervix. They will then place this swab or brush in a container with liquid so that the cells don’t dry out.
If you’re nervous about your first Pap smear, you can ask your doctor to talk through the process with you before actually doing it.
A Pap smear doesn’t take long, but it might feel a little uncomfortable, especially if it’s your first time.
If it’s your first time going to the doctor for a gynecological exam, you might not be used to lying down with your feet in stirrups. When the doctor inserts the speculum, it might feel a bit cold because the instrument is usually metallic.
If your hymen is still intact, you might feel a bit of pain as the doctor inserts the speculum into the vagina. If at any time you feel that the exam is becoming too painful, you can always ask the doctor to stop. They can choose a smaller speculum so that you are more comfortable.
When the doctor begins swabbing the cervix, you might feel slight irritation. When the test is over, this irritation might persist for a few hours. In some cases, there might be a bit of vaginal bleeding and discharge. However, this usually subsides over the course of the day. If it persists over the next day, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
You might be asking yourself when to get a Pap smear. Doctors usually recommend that women between the ages of 21 and 65 have the Pap test done.
It’s also normal for the first Pap smear age to be before 21, during puberty. If you’re sexually active, it’s a good idea to schedule a Pap smear, regardless of your age.
If you’re not sexually active, doctors recommend that you have a cervical exam every three years throughout your 20s. For women between 30 to 65, doctors suggest an HPV test every five years. You can also schedule a combined test, comprised of a Pap smear and HPV test, every five years.
After the age of 65, you can do a Pap smear if you’ve never had one or if your last one was before you turned 60.
Track your cycle using Flo!
Install our app to track your symptoms, predict patterns and get daily health insights.
If you are going in for a Pap smear, there are some things you should consider. If this is your first time, you might be worried about what the whole procedure is going to be like.
Try to relax before and during the procedure. When you’re relaxed, your vagina is also relaxed, making it easier for your doctor to collect the cervical cell sample quickly and efficiently.
Before your Pap smear, avoid penetrative vaginal sex at least two days before the scheduled date. During these two days, you should also avoid any other intravaginal jellies, creams, or other medication (unless specifically told otherwise by your doctor). This is because these can change or remove potentially abnormal cervical cells that your doctor might be interested in.
Doctors also recommend scheduling your Pap smear on a day when you do not have menstrual bleeding. Although they can still carry out the test, there is a higher chance that the results might be affected.
Because the test requires you to undress, you might consider wearing comfortable and easy-to-remove clothes.