A Pap smear test is used to screen for and prevent cervical cancer in women. The doctor collects a sample of cells from the cervix (the lower portion of the uterus) and examines them under a microscope to look for any abnormalities.
Pap smear tests are usually done at the doctor's office. Your doctor will use an instrument to open your vagina and use a swab to obtain a sample from your cervix. The goal of the test is to detect any problems early so that they can be treated as soon as possible.
This test is usually performed every 3 years for women starting at the age of 21. It may also be performed every 5 years for women aged 30 to 65 if a human papillomavirus (HPV) test is performed at the same time. Sometimes, the Pap test is performed with a pelvic examination. Your doctor will advise you on whether you need the test.
During a Pap smear cells from the cervix are removed with a swab. Note the speculum, a sterile instrument used to keep the vagina open.
Risks and precautions
The Pap test is usually a straightforward and safe procedure.
Before the test
Before the test, your doctor may advise you to:
- avoid sexual intercourse for 24 hours before the test
- avoid douching or using vaginal products (such as tampons, creams, deodorant, sprays, or birth control foams or jellies) for 48 hours before the test
- schedule the test at a time when you do not have your menstrual period
It is important that you fully understand what the test involves beforehand. Ask you doctor to explain the risks, benefits, and drawbacks of the test, and don't be shy to probe further until you are comfortable with your doctor's responses.
Tell your doctor if you are or may be pregnant, or if you have had abnormal Pap tests before. If you are taking prescription or over-the counter (non-prescription) medications, supplements, or herbal products, make sure you inform you doctor or pharmacist. Ask them whether it is necessary for you to stop taking any of these medications and products before the test. It is also important to tell them if you have allergies or have certain medical conditions.