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.
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.
It is important for all women to make pap tests, along with pelvic exams, a part of their routine health care.
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.
For two days before the test, you should not douche or use vaginal creams, suppositories, foams or vaginal medications (like for a yeast infection).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Any woman can get cancer of the cervix. But, the chances of getting cancer of the cervix increase when a woman: