A pap smear or test is a simple procedure performed at an OB/GYN office. The exam looks for precancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix, the opening of the uterus. The patient will lie down on an examination table to start the procedure. The doctor uses a speculum to keep the vaginal walls open and access the cervix. Another device will scrape sample calls from the cervical walls. The sample is then sent to a laboratory to test for cervical cancer and other conditions like human papillomavirus (HPV). Pap smears can be slightly uncomfortable but take less than 30 minutes.
How often should you get checked?
In the past, doctors encouraged women to get yearly pap smears from age 21. This recommendation was due to the prevalence of HPV, the primary cause of cervical cancer. Since the introduction of an HPV vaccine and specific tests for HPV, yearly pap smears are unnecessary. Furthermore, cervical cancer takes several years to develop. Now, women between 21-29 are encouraged to have pap smears every 3 years. Between ages 30-65, women can have pap smears every 3-5 years. Doctors recommend a pap test alone every 3 years, an HPV test every 5 years, or both every 5 years.
Exceptions to the rule
While cervical cancer can be detected and treated with checks every 5 years, there are exceptions. From age 65 and above, most women would not need pap smears. These tests are unnecessary if these women had 3 consecutive tests or a previous hysterectomy. On the other hand, women with past tests that revealed abnormal cells will need more frequent examinations. The same goes for women with HIV, previous chemotherapy, diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure, or a history of HPV. An OB/GYN will discuss how often these patients will need testing.
What happens after a pap smear?
After the doctor recovers the sample during the test, a lab will return the results within a few days. The cells are normal if the results are negative, and no further action is required. For abnormal cells, other tests are necessary to determine if the cells are indeed cancerous. These tests include additional pap smears, a colposcopy, or a biopsy. Despite the 3-5-year window, millions of American women still fail to get the required pap smears. This simple test can help prevent possible cervical cancers, which lead to over 4,000 deaths every year.