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The Truth About Pap Smears

No woman likes getting pap smears. There aren’t many situations that feel more uncomfortable or awkward than having a gynecologist taking a look inside your vagina with a speculum. But, those 30 to 60 seconds of discomfort could save your life — and it’s important to stay up-to-date with your exams. 

What is a pap smear? 

A “pap smear” is a “cervical cancer screening test used to find changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer.” Other names for the test include “pap test” and “cervical cytology.” During a pap smear, your gynecologist will first use a speculum to gain a clear view of the cervix and upper vagina. Then, the provider will remove cells from the cervix with a sampling instrument (usually a small brush) to be sent to a lab for testing.

This same process can also be used to test for the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV). 

How often do I need to get a pap smear? 

The frequency of your cervical cytology is based on your age and health history. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

  • Women aged 21–29 years should have a pap test every three years. HPV testing is not recommended.  
  • Women aged 30–65 years (with no previous history of an abnormal pap) should have a pap smear every three years. HPV co-testing may also be performed and the results used to determine additional testing, treatment and follow up. 
  • Women above 65 years of age need pap smears less frequently depending on their health history. 

If I have a regular pap smear, do I still need to see my provider regularly?

ABSOLUTELY! 

It is important for even the healthiest women with to continue to see their gynecologist for an annual Well-Woman Exam. Your annual exam with your provider is an important time to discuss a variety of health matters, including: 

What happens if my pap smear is abnormal?

Many women have abnormal pap smear results, and most of these are mild.  Your body’s cells are always changing, and often, your immune system will recognize abnormal cells and replace them with new healthy ones. 

The first step in further evaluating an abnormal pap smear is to have a colposcopy, a procedure done in the office. This involves visualizing the cervix with a microscope and biopsing any areas that appear abnormal. Further treatment will be based on the results of this procedure. 

Having an abnormal pap smear, including those that require treatment, will not affect being able to get pregnant or in any way affect the pregnancy itself.