What is a Pap smear?

The Pap smear checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens into the vagina (birth canal). The Pap test can tell if you have an infection, abnormal (unhealthy) cells, or cancer.

Why do I need a Pap test?

A Pap test detects a problem before it becomes an invasive cancer, or detects a cancer at an earlier stage. Treatment is then easier with better chances of a complete cure. Pap tests can also pick up infections and inflammation, and abnormal cells that can change into cancer cells.

Do all women need Pap tests?

It is important for all women to make pap tests, along with pelvic exams, a part of their routine health care.

How often do I need to get a Pap test?

Many doctors tell women to get a Pap test every year. But, I usually recommend a Pap test every 1 to 3 years after you have had 3 normal Pap tests for 3 years in a row.

Is there anything special I need to do before going for a Pap test?

For two days before the test, you should not douche or use vaginal creams, suppositories, foams or vaginal medications (like for a yeast infection).

How is a Pap test done?

Your doctor can do a Pap test during a pelvic exam. It is a quick test
that takes only a few minutes. You will be asked to lie down on an exam table and put your feet in holders called stirrups, letting your knees fall to the side. A sheet will cover your legs and stomach. The doctor will put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, opening it to see the cervix and to do the Pap test. She or he will use a special stick, brush or swab to take a few cells from inside and around the cervix. The cells are placed on a small glass slide, and then checked by a lab to make sure they are healthy. While painless for most women, a Pap test can cause discomfort for some women.

What happens after the Pap test is done?

If the cells are okay, no treatment is needed. If an infection is present, treatment is prescribed. If the cells look abnormal, or not healthy, more tests may be needed. A Pap test is not 100% right all the time, so it is always important to talk to your doctor about your results.

What do abnormal Pap test results mean?

A doctor may tell you that your Pap test result was “abnormal.” Cells from the cervix can sometimes look abnormal but this does not mean you have cancer. Remember, abnormal conditions do not always turn into cancer. And, some conditions are more likely than are others to turn into cancer. If you have abnormal results, be sure to talk with your doctor to find out what they mean and what you need to do (if anything) about it.

What will happen if my Pap test finds something that is not normal?

If the Pap test shows something confusing or a minor change in the cells of the cervix, the test may be done again. Your doctor may also take a small amount of tissue from the cervix (called a biopsy) to examine for any abnormal cells, which can be a sign of cancer.

Do sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) cause cancer of the cervix?

One type of STD, called HPV, or the humanpapilloma virus, has been linked to cancer of the cervix. HPV can cause wart-like growths on the genitals. When it is not treated or happens frequently, HPV can increase a woman’s chances of developing cancer of the cervix. HPV is a very common STD, especially in younger women and women with more than one sexual partner.

What increases a woman’s risk for cancer of the cervix?

Any woman can get cancer of the cervix. But, the chances of getting cancer of the cervix increase when a woman:

  • Starts having sex before age 18.
  • Has many sexual partners.
  • Has sexual partners who have other sexual partners.
  • Has or has had humanpapilloma virus (HPV) or genital warts.
  • Has or has had a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
  • Is over the age of 60.
  • Smokes.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccine

  • The recommended age for human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination of females and males is 11-12 years. The vaccination is a three-dose series of intramuscular shots.
  • Human papillomaviruses belong to a large family of viruses, and the vaccine protects against some of the virus types that are sexually transmitted. Most people who contract HPV have no symptoms, and they quickly clear the virus from their bodies. However, in some people the viruses establish persistent infection, causing changes to infected cells that can lead to cancer. Indeed, HPVs are the main cause of cervical cancer, and some are associated with anal, penile, mouth, and throat cancers. The HPV vaccine protects against the most common types of cancer-causing human papillomaviruses. One of the licensed HPV vaccines also protects again certain HPVs that cause genital warts.
  • HPV is very common: one recent study showed that nearly 27% of girls and women aged 14-59 tested positive for one or more strains of HPV. Rates for boys and men are likely to be similar. Mathematical models have shown that more than 80% of women will have been infected with genital HPV by the time they reach age 50. According to the American Cancer Society, each year about 11,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 die from it.

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