A Pap smear is a routine screening test for cervical cancer. When diagnosed and treated early, cervical cancer is highly curable. Screening is especially important because cervical cancer often does not produce any symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. For most women, a periodic Pap smear is a key component of a preventive health care plan.
Usually performed as part of a pelvic examination, a Pap smear involves the collection of a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix. The sample is then sent to a lab for examination by a pathologist under a microscope. A Pap test can detect cancerous cells before they have spread—when there are generally more treatment options available—as well as precancerous changes in the cervix that could lead to the development of cancer if left untreated.
When Is Pap Testing Performed?
Together, a woman and her doctor can decide on the appropriate time to begin Pap testing and how often the test should be repeated. In general, many experts recommend beginning Pap testing when a woman reaches age 21, then repeating the test every three years until she reaches age 65. More frequent testing may be recommended if a woman has certain risk factors, such as:
- A Pap smear that detected precancerous cells
- A cervical cancer diagnosis
- A weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, organ transplantation, or long-term corticosteroid use
- A human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
- A history of smoking
A woman and her doctor may decide to end Pap testing in certain situations. For instance, if a woman’s uterus and cervix are surgically removed to treat a noncancerous condition, such as uterine fibroids, it may be appropriate for her to discontinue Pap testing.
What Does Pap Testing Involve?
A Pap smear is a relatively simple test that can be performed in a doctor’s office. While lying comfortably on a table, the patient places her feet firmly in stirrups. A medical professional will gently insert a specialized metal or plastic tool (speculum) into her vagina, then open the speculum to widen her vaginal walls so that her cervix is visible. Using a swab, the medical professional will collect a sample of cells from the woman’s cervix, place the sample in a sealed container, and send it to a lab for processing. Usually, the results are available within a few days.
A Normal Result
If a Pap test produces a normal result, no precancerous or cancerous cells were found in the sample, and no further action is needed until the woman is due for her next regularly scheduled Pap smear.
An Abnormal Result
If a Pap test produces an abnormal result, the reason may be unrelated to cancer, such as mild inflammation or minor cell changes (dysplasia). If so, the doctor may suggest a “wait and watch” approach and advise the woman to have another Pap smear in a few months. On the other hand, if precancerous or cancerous cells are found in the sample, the doctor will likely order further testing, such as a colposcopy or biopsy.
An Annual Well-Woman Exam Is a Key to Your Good Health
At Optimum Direct Care—a direct primary care practice in Orlando, Florida—we believe regular wellness exams are essential to every woman’s good health, no matter her age. Contact us today to learn more about our practice, membership options, and services.