What Is a Pap Test Used For?

Written by yvonnethornton on March 20th, 2014

The term  “Pap test” or “Pap smear” is known by almost every woman in the United States.  However, over the past few years, its annual frequency has been questioned and the actual manner in which it is performed has been enhanced in many gynecologists’ offices. One of the components of a gynecologic exam that you have undoubtedly undergone is the Pap test (or Pap smear).  As stated in my health book for women and many times before on this blog, A Pap smear is NOT a pelvic exam.  The purpose of a pelvic (gynecologic exam) is to check all of your reproductive organs, which includes uterus, ovaries, vagina and vulva.  The Pap test is only to check for cellular changes in your cervix (the mouth of the womb) that may signal cancer or precancer. This is why regular appointments with your gynecologist are so important – because a precancerous condition can be treated before it becomes invasive cervical cancer, but the only way to detect a condition like this is with a Pap test.

Make no mistake – a Pap test can save your life. The chances of treating cervical cancer successfully are far, far higher when it is caught in its early stages. In most cases, precancerous cell changes can be treated before they ever become cancer at all. If you are wondering why you need a Pap test, or have been putting off making an appointment for your annual visit to the gynecologist, remember: a Pap smear is the absolute best way to prevent cervical cancer.

With that said, a Pap test is not recommended for women less than 21 years of age.  However, between the ages of 21 and 65, most women need an annual Pap test. Even though the American Cancer Society recommends Pap tests every three years, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends this screening test every year, because three years is a long time for cancer to grow and spread. Why wait three years when your cervical cancer could have been caught in its precancerous stage two years earlier?

Even if a woman has had a hysterectomy, she still needs a Pap test if her cervix is still in place, which is the case with certain types of hysterectomies (known as subtotal or supracervical hysterectomies). Either way, she still needs an annual pelvic exam; you can find more information on this in my book, Inside Information for Women.

To help ensure accurate Pap test results, you should not douche for a couple of days beforehand. That was a trick question, you should not be douching in the first place!!). Also avoid sex, vaginal creams or suppositories, deodorant sprays or powders in the vaginal area before a pelvic exam and Pap test.  Although some gynecologists prefer that the patient is not menstruating, a Pap test can be performed during your menses and they are not mutually exclusive.  If there are cancer cells present, they will be present whether you are menstruating or not.

What Does a Pap Test Involve?

The Pap test is done as part of the pelvic exam, and is very quick. The doctor places a bi-valved instrument called a speculum (hopefully warmed) in the patient’s vagina, which allows the cervix to be visualized.  The word “speculum” comes from the Latin “to see”. The doctor then uses a special brush (cytobrush) or swab (similar to a Q-tip) to collect cells from the cervix. These cells are placed on a slide and examined in the lab under a microscope. That is the traditional Pap smear.  Recently, liquid-based Pap tests have essentially replaced the conventional Pap smear.  In this test, after the cytobrush or the Q-tip has collected the cells from the cervix, it is submerged into a small vial of liquid preservative for transport to the laboratory, where it is then processed and smeared on the slide.  The presence of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) can also be tested with this technology.  Some spotting is not unusual after a Pap test, but the test does not hurt. If the test shows a potential problem, your doctor will let you know that further testing is needed. Although this can be scary, remember that abnormal test results do not necessarily mean you have cancer.

Most insurance plans cover Pap tests as part of the gynecologic visit. However, if you are uninsured and not participating in the coverage afforded by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, there are facilities that offer free or low-cost Pap tests

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


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