A Pap test, or Pap smear, is used to check the cervix (or bottom part of uterus) for early signs of cancer. It can find cancer or pre-cancer cells. Pre-cancer can be treated to prevent cancer. Cancer found in the early stages can be treated and even cured before it spreads.
If you are a woman, you should start having Pap tests when you turn 21. You do not need to be sexually active before getting a Pap test. At age 30, your provider might discuss doing an additional test called an HPV test. There is no difference in the exam.
You do not need to do anything special to prepare for a Pap test. You may have heard you should not have sex or use tampons for 2 days before a Pap test, but this recommendation is unnecessary. Do not worry if you have your period on the day of your test, as the test can still be done. If your bleeding is very heavy, however, you might want to reschedule your test.
Recommended frequency of Pap tests depends on your age and results of previous tests. Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30 and older can have a Pap test every 3 years or a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years. Women older than age 65 can stop having Pap tests if they meet the following requirements:
They have never smoked
They have had no new sex partners since the last Pap test
They have had regular Pap tests until age 65
They have had 3 normal Pap tests in a row
They have had no abnormal Pap tests in past 10 years.
If you have had a hysterectomy to remove your uterus, ask your provider if you need to keep having Pap tests. If your cervix was removed and your hysterectomy was not due to cancer, you most likely will not need further Pap tests.
You still need to get Pap tests if you’ve received the HPV vaccine series, as it decreases your chances of getting cervical cancer but does not completely protect you.
Abnormal Pap tests are common and do not mean you have cervical cancer, but you may need further testing to exclude this. Further testing can include repeating the Pap test in 6 to 12 months or a colposcopy, when a trained provider looks at your cervix with device that looks like a microscope. A colposcopy allows a provider to see the cervix in detail and take samples or biopsies for further testing.
If it turns out you have cervical cancer or pre-cancer, there are effective treatments. If discovered early, there is a good chance it can be cured.
So, though they are not our favorite thing to do as women, it is important to schedule those recommended Pap tests!