Pap Smear

Pap smears are an important part of your Well Woman exam and your long term reproductive health.
A Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. When you get a pap smear, a doctor takes a few cells from your cervix to look for any signs of cancer. The test is the best way to detect cervical cancer and pre-cancerous conditions, which are easier to cure if found earlier.
Most women should get their first pap smear at age 21, and repeat the test every 2-3 years after that. If you are over 65 and have had a series of normal test results, or if you no longer have a cervix (for example, due to hysterectomy), you may no longer need pap smears.
There are risk factors that might increase your need to be screened, so talk with your doctor about what testing schedule is best for you.
Your doctor collects cervical cells during a pelvic exam. A device called a speculum is used to widen the opening of the vagina in order to examine your cervix, and collects the cells with a small plastic stick or brush. The cells are spread on a glass slide and sent to a lab for testing.  
Getting a Pap smear is not usually painful, but can be a little uncomfortable. It does not take more than a few minutes.
It usually takes about 3 weeks to get the test results. Your doctors office should contact you with the results at that time.
An abnormal Pap smear simply means that the cells do not look normal. There are many reasons for abnormal Pap test results, so an abnormal result most often does not mean that you have cancer.
Sometimes a doctor repeats the test if is abnormal.  If the results of the repeat Pap smear are still abnormal, your doctor may perform a colposcopy to further evaluate the problem.
If you had an infection at the time of the test or if there were not enough cells collected during the test, the results may be unclear, and your doctor will want to repeat the test.  
To help make your Pap smear as accurate as possible:
  • Do not douche, have sex, or use tampons or vaginal creams for 48 hours before the test
  • Do have the test 10-20 days after the end of your last period
Although Pap tests are an effective cancer screening tool, they are not always 100 percent correct. You can get “false positive” and “false negative” results.
A false positive Pap test is when a woman is told that she has abnormal cervical cells, but the cells are really normal. If your Pap results were a false positive, there is no problem, although it can be upsetting and confusing.
A false negative Pap test is when you are told the test was normal when in reality there are abnormal cervical cells that were missed. In this case, a potential treatment does not begin as soon as it could. But, if you have regular Pap tests, this is not necessarily a big problem because it is likely that any abnormalities missed in one Pap test will be found on your next one.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Pamphlet on Pap Tests
The National Women's Health Information Center
Frequently Asked Questions about Pap Tests
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