A Pap smear also known as a Pap test is a procedure to determine cervical cancer in women. This test screens for the presence of any precancerous or cancerous cell in the cervix – the opening of the uterus that’s situated at the top of the vagina.
Diagnosing cervical cancer at an early stage with a Pap smear offers you a better chance of recovery. It also detects any changes in the cervical cells that suggest cancer may develop at any time in the future. During this test, cells from the cervix are gently scraped away and screened for abnormal growth. This test is the first step in stopping the possible development of cervical cancer.
Who Needs A Pap Smear?
The latest guidelines recommend that women get regular Pap smear screening every three years beginning at age 21. However, some women are at increased risk for cancer and they may need more frequent tests if :
People with the compromised immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant
Women over 30 and above, have not had abnormal Pap tests, then you may need to screen once in every five years.
HPV is a virus that leads to warts and elevates the risk of cervical cancer. Women with HPV may be at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
Women over the age of 64 with a history of normal Pap smear results can stop taking the test in the future.
Regular Pap smear can be done based on age, regardless of sexual activity, as the HPV virus can be inactive for years and then suddenly become active.
How Often The Test Should Be Repeated?
Health care providers generally recommend repeating Pap smear screening every three years for women between ages 21 to 65.
Certain factors can increase risk, where the doctor may suggest more frequent Pap smear, regardless of the age, these include:
Diagnosed with cervical cancer
A Pap smear test that shows precancerous cells
Exposure to diethylstilbestrol, before birth
Weakened immune response due to organ transplant, chemotherapy
How To Prepare For The Test?
To assure that your Pap smear screen is effective, follow these tips prior to test:
Avoid sexual intercourse, douching, or using vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies for two days before going for the test, as these may wash away abnormal cells
Do not schedule the test during the menstrual cycle.
What To Expect?
During The Test
A Pap smear takes only a few minutes and it is performed in the hospital. You may have to undress from the waist down and lie on your back on an exam table with knees bent and heels rest in supports called stirrups. The doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina that holds the walls of the vagina apart so that doctor can examine your cervix. Then the doctor takes samples of cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat scraping device called a spatula, which does not hurt.
After The test
After the Pap smear test, you can carry out normal activities without any restrictions. The samples collected are examined under a microscope to look for traits in the cells that indicate cancer or a precancerous condition.
What Does The Results Mean?
The possible results from a Pap smear can be normal or abnormal.
Normal Pap smear
If the result is normal then it means no abnormal cells were identified, normal results are referred to as negative. With a normal result, you probably won’t need a Pap smear for another three years.
Abnormal Pap smear
If the test result is abnormal, this doesn’t mean you have cancer but suggests that there are abnormal cells on the cervix and some of which can be precancerous. There are several levels of abnormal cells:
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance
Mild inflammation or minor cell changes (dysplasia)
Carcinoma in situ
Cancer or pre-cancer
Depending upon the test results your healthcare provider may recommend:
To increase the frequency of Pap smear screening.
Further evaluation of cervical tissue with colposcopy will use light and magnification to see vaginal and cervical tissues more clearly.