The very term "pap smear" may send a chill down your spine. In fact, it is often the reason why so many women dread going to their health care provider for their annual physical. Even though it's not the most fun thing in the world, your annual pap smear is a very important part of maintaining your health. It could even save your life. So don't be afraid of this simple and commonplace procedure. Instead, find out about what it involves and you won't be so scared the next time you show up to your doctor's office.
What is a Pap Smear?
The term pap smear is actually short for papanicolaou smear. It is a test done to assess the health of your cervix, which is the opening located above your vagina and below your uterus. The pap smear is a simple procedure that is performed on practically every woman in the country. In fact, every year more than 55 million pap smears are performed in the United States alone. In particular, the pap smear is designed to look for abnormal cells that may be developing in your cervix, which could indicate cervical cancer.
How Important is It?
Though it might not seem like a big deal, your annual pap smear is very important to your overall health. Your pap smear can help detect cervical cancer in its early stages, allowing you to get fast treatment. This increases your chances of recovery from the illness. Since it was introduced during the 1940s, the pap smear has been attributed with reducing cervical cancer deaths by more than 70%. Pap smears can also help to detect infections like yeast infections and HPV.
Who Should Get One?
Every woman should get regular pap smears throughout her life. Typically, you should have had your first pap smear by the time your turn 18. However, if you have been or are sexually active before 18, you should have a pap test sooner. This test should be repeated once every year, or every six months if your results come back positive for abnormal cells. Women should continue to have a pap smear even after they have gone through menopause.
Certain women should be especially diligent in scheduling their pap smears. Women with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer and other cervical abnormalities. If you have HIV, schedule a pap test every six months, until your health provider instructs you otherwise. Women who have had a hysterectomy should also have annual pap smears. Pap smears after hysterectomy can alert you to the presence of recurrent cancer.
The Pap Smear Procedure
The pap test is a simple and quick procedure that only takes a couple of minutes.
- You will lie down on the examination table with your feet in the stirrups or resting close to your bottom.
- Your knees will bend outwards, exposing your vagina.
- Your health care provider will insert a speculum in your vagina. This is a plastic instrument that helps to hold open your vaginal canal.
- Using a cotton swab, your doctor will clean your cervix.
- Using another cotton swab or a small brush, your health care provider will collect a sample of cells from your cervix
- These cells are placed on a slide and sent to a laboratory for testing.
Pap smear tests are not painful but you may feel some pressure in your lower abdomen. Try to remain as relaxed as possible during the procedure deep breathing sometimes helps with this. There are no pap smear side effects, though you may experience slight spotting afterwards. This should only last a day or two.
Preparing for the Test
The pap smear doesn't take much preparation at all, but there are a few things you should avoid before a pap smear.
- avoid douching or using vaginal powders for 48 hours before your test
- avoid using vaginal medications, such as creams or suppositories for 48 hours before your test
- refrain from sexual intercourse for 24 hours before your test
Try to schedule your pap test when you are not having your menstrual period. Menstrual blood can make it difficult to analyze the cell samples taken during your pap test. The best time to have you pap test is 10 to 20 days after the first day of your period.
After your pap smear has been taken, your cell sample will be sent off to a lab to be analyzed. Your doctor will receive your pap smear results a few weeks later. Your results will either come back as negative or positive. A negative result means that your cervical cells are normal, and you will not need any follow up procedures. A positive test indicates the presence of some abnormal cells in your cervix. Causes of an abnormal pap smear include:
If you have an abnormal pap smear, your health care provider will examine your cervix again, this time with a colposcope. A colposcope is very much like a microscope, and helps to magnify your cervix. Your doctor will then be able to determine if you have an infection or if a tissue sample needs to be taken to confirm the presence of cancer cells. Treatment can then be undertaken.
Food for Thought
It is important to remember that a pap test is not 100% accurate all of the time. Sometimes, false positive and false negative results do happen. This is why it is important to have follow up pap smears every year. If you do have an irregular pap smear, try to remain calm. Not all abnormal cells indicate that you have cancer or that you will get cancer. Follow up tests should be performed in order to find out more information.