A pap smear is a medical procedure your doctor uses to detect changes in cervical cells whether they have the potential of becoming cancerous. When caught early, there is a very high chance of successfully preventing the majority of cervical cancer cases or treating cervical cancer at the early stage. Because of this, a pap smear is one of the top ways to prevent cervical cancer. Read more to see how to prepare for a Pap smear.
Before a Pap Test
To make sure that your pap smear gives you the most accurate results possible, there are things you need to keep in mind before going for a test:
- Before you even visit your doctor’s office, do your best to schedule your pap smear for a time when you are not on your period. This is important as the blood may interfere with your test results, although light bleeding may not cause an issue.
- Avoid using vaginal sprays, powders, medications, tampons, or douches for a minimum of 24 hours before your pap smear.
- Your doctor may also suggest not having sexual intercourse for 24 hours before the test, so either avoid intercourse during this time or ask your doctor if you should.
Once you are at the doctor’s office, you will need to finish the process of how to prepare for a pap smear by giving your health care professional relevant information. Let them know if:
- You could be or are pregnant.
- You have any symptoms in your urinary or reproductive tract, including swelling, unusual odors, increased vaginal discharge, sores, redness, or itching.
- You have noticed any changes during regular vaginal self-exams.
- You use birth control.
- This is the first pap test you have.
- You have ever had procedures or surgeries, including radiation therapy, on the vulva, uterus, cervix, or vagina.
- You have had previous issues with pelvic exams.
- You have had abnormal results in the past.
- You have been a victim of sexual abuse or rape. This will let you work with your doctor to deal with fears and concerns.
Also, let your doctor know how long your last period lasted and when it began. Talk with your doctor about your concerns, including the test process, why it needs to be done, or how to interpret your results.
How Is a Pap Smear Done?
A pap smear begins with you changing into a medical paper gown. Most of the time, a nurse or the doctor will do a breast exam before the pap smear. This involves kneading around the breasts and squeezing the nipples lightly.
And then you will lie down on the examination table on your back, placing your feet in the stirrups or footrests. This position allows your doctor to examine the cervix, vagina, and external genital area.
Your doctor will then insert a speculum into the vagina to gently spread your vaginal walls. This allows the doctor to examine the cervix and the interior of the vagina. She or he will then use a small spatula, brush (cervix brush or cytobrush), or cotton swab to collect cell samples from the cervix. She or he will collect sells from the cervical opening known as the endocervical canal as well as the visible area of the cervix. For those without a cervix, cells will be collected from the vagina during a pap test. Collected cells are either mixed with a liquid fixative or smeared onto a slide before being sent to the lab where they are examined with a microscope.
This video will specify what happens during a pap smear:
When figuring out how to prepare for a pap smear and how it’s done, remember that there may be small cramping or slight soreness sometimes and that is normal.
What Do theTest Results Mean?
- Normal: Normal test results indicate that there weren’t any cell changes found on the cervix. You still need future pap smears to detect future changes.
- Unclear: Unclear tests are common. This indicates that the cells could be abnormal, but it may be related to infection, menopause, pregnancy, human papillomavirus (HPV), or something else. Your doctor may suggest an HPV test to further confirm.
- Abnormal: Abnormal results indicate that there were cell changes in the cervix, but it doesn’t usually indicate cervical cancer.
These abnormal changes are typically due to HPV. They can be low-grade (minor) or high-grade (serious) and minor changes will typically resolve themselves. Major changes may require treatment to prevent cancer. Some very serious changes are referred to as precancer since they can develop into cancer but are not there yet.
Although rare, it is also possible for an abnormal result to indicate cancer. This will require further tests and earlier detection increases the ease of treatment.
How Often Do I Need a Pap Smear?
The frequency with which you need pap smears depends on health history and age. You and your doctor can determine the best schedule for you. The following can provide guidelines:
- Those between 21 and 29 should have a pap smear each 3 years.
- Those between 30 and 64 should have a pap smear as well as HPV test done each 5 years or a pap test every 3 years.
- Those over 65 may be able to stop having their pap tests.
Certain women require more frequent pap smears. Discuss more frequent testing with your doctor if:
- Your immune system is weak because of steroid use, chemotherapy, or an organ transplant.
- Your mother had diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure during pregnancy.
- You have previously been treated for cervical cancer or abnormal pap results.
- You are positive for HIV. Those with HIV have an increased risk of cervical diseases including cervical cancer. The CDC suggests that HIV-positive women have a pap smear when diagnosed with HIV with a follow-up test in 6 months. If these results are normal, they can then have yearly tests.