If you’re new to puberty or women’s health care practices, you’re likely to be scheduled for a pelvic exam to help determine the state of your vaginal health. Sometimes, dependent upon the results of a pelvic exam, a pap smear, also called a pap test, is requested as a follow-up method to test for cervical cancer.
What happens during a pap smear is that a collection of your cervical cells is taken from inside your vaginal cavity. While it sounds more painful than it is, there can be a little bit of discomfort during the procedure. However, nothing unbearable. A good practice is to take OTC pain medications an hour before the procedure.
The sooner a pap smear detects any signs of cancer, the higher the likelihood that there can be a cure found for the condition. Pap smears can also be used as a preventative measure to determine if cancerous cells are likely to happen in the future but haven’t evolved yet.
AM I A CANDIDATE FOR A PAP SMEAR?
Your healthcare provider will be able to tell you when they think it may be appropriate for a test. Of course, if you’re ever feeling like you may have a need for further diagnosis (symptoms, family history of cervical cancer, etc.), be sure to address this with a professional and schedule yourself for a screening.
DO I HAVE TO HAVE THEM REGULARLY?
Well, of course, this will be case-by-case, however, generally speaking, OBGYNS will begin to suggest them at the age of 21 and recommend repeating necessary testing every three years following a test with normal cells. If an abnormal screening takes place, you can expect to get checked annually until a test returns with normal results.
ARE THERE RISKS TO PAP SMEARS?
While pap smears are a relatively safe way to screen for cervical cancer, they aren’t 100% accurate every time. There are rare instances that can result in false-negative results — meaning that the test indicates no abnormality, even though you do have abnormal cells.
This doesn’t imply that the doctor or staff made an error, but moreso that the test itself didn’t pick up an accurate read to identify an issue. This can happen when the following takes place during pap smear:
An insufficient collection of cells
A minor number of abnormal cells
Blood masking the abnormal cells
What should I do before a pap smear?
For the highest likelihood of accuracy, it is best to ensure you provide an easy-to-read “sample”. For that reason, it is recommended to skip on sex a few days prior to your test. Also, avoid using any vaginal creams, ointments or douches internally. This includes spermicidal and other internal contraceptives. In addition to these suggested practices, it is best to schedule your pap smear when you are not on your monthly cycle. Of course, if you do not have a regulated menses, it can happen despite being on your period.
A Pap smear is performed in your doctor's office and takes only a few minutes. Much like a pelvic exam, you’ll be undressed from the waist down to gain access to the vagina.
Your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of your vagina apart so that your doctor can easily see your cervix. This can sometimes bring a bit of pressure, but should not be painful. Samples of your cells will be lifted from the surface of the cervix with a device that brushes and scrapes slightly.
Will I be okay after the pap smear?
You should be able to return to normal activities after your pap smear ends. You may want to abstain a few days following just to allow your cervix to rest. Also, any abdominal cramping shouldn’t be cause for concern but could take place a few days after.
Your cell samples are transferred to a laboratory where they're examined under a microscope and your doctor will call you with results.
If your Pap smear is abnormal, your doctor may perform a procedure called colposcopy. A colposcopy is a simple procedure that lets your doctor get a good look at your cervix. The exam takes 5 to 10 minutes, and is a lot like getting a Pap smear. One of the biggest differences is your doctor uses a special magnifying instrument called a colposcope.
Your doctor also may take a tissue sample (biopsy) from any areas that appear abnormal. The tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis and a definitive diagnosis that will also be reported back to you once determined.
This can sometimes cause cramping or light bleeding, so wearing period panties or similar might be a good idea for these appointments.
Don’t worry. Stay informed and on top of your pelvic health screenings and you’ll be all the more confident that you can handle whatever your body is trying to tell you!