What is a Pap Smear Test?
Pap smear (also called Pap test) is a screening test performed to evaluate the health of your cervix and to help in detecting early signs of cervical cancer by identifying presence of cancerous or precancerous cells in the cervix.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer-related mortality in women. One of the major causes of cervical cancer is viral infection by human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16 and 18.
Who Should Get A Pap Smear?
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that you can get by sex with both men and women. Hence, all sexually active women are advised to get regular Pap smears done to make sure they have not contracted HPV infection or cervical cancer. Typically, women who are aged less than 21 and are not sexually active do not need this test. Any woman who is sexually active between the ages of 21 and 65 should get this test done once every 3 years. For woman over 65 years who have had normal Pap smear in the last 10 years, this test can be discontinued.
In addition, if you are HIV positive or have a weak immunity (could be a result of chemotherapy or because of taking immunosuppressive medications for organ transplant) you are at an increased risk for developing this infection and so you need to get tested more frequently.
When Should You Get This Test Done?
This test is usually done as part of your annual check-up with your gynecologist, but it can be done at a separate visit as well.
You are advised not to get this test done while you are on your periods as it interferes with the results and increases the chances of an inconclusive result.
If you are pregnant, then this test can be safely performed in the early stages (up to 24 weeks) of pregnancy with little to no discomfort. However, if you need to get this test done in the later stages of pregnancy, it is possible to perform the test but it will be more painful and uncomfortable. If it is feasible to wait until after pregnancy, it is advised you get your Pap smear test done after 12 weeks of delivery. This increases your probability of getting an accurate result.
How is Pap Smear Test Done?
During this test, you will be asked to lie on the examination table and place your feet in the stirrups. Your gynecologist insert a tool called the speculum into your vagina. This tool opens up the walls of your vagina so the cervix can become visible. The doctor then scrapes some cells from the cervix so they can be sent to the lab for examination.
This scraping of cells can be done in a number of ways depending on the preference of your doctor. They could either use just a spatula, or a spatula with a brush or a special device called the cytobrush (a tool made up of both a spatula and a brush). These cells are either applied to a glass slide or added to a vial and sent to the laboratory for examination under the microscope.
While your doctor is scraping these cells, you may feel a slight pressure and discomfort. You may have a better experience during this test if you allow your body to relax and stay calm. Deep breathing helps if you feel anxious. The procedure is very quick and should get over in a few minutes.
After the test you may experience mild cramps and light vaginal bleeding. These are all normal reactions of the test and should not be cause for worry. However if these effects continue the day after the test then you should tell your gynecologist.
It typically takes a week or two to get back the results from the Pap smear. Pap smear results are classified as either normal or abnormal. Sometimes the test may also be inconclusive in which case you may need to repeat the test.