Why Pap Smears Matter, How to Prepare For One, and Other Common Questions Answered

This routine appointment can be a life-changing step in keeping your health in check.
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This routine appointment can be a life-changing step in keeping your health in check.

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Art Credit: aptmetaphor

From breast health to menstrual cycles, we ladies have a lot to keep tabs on. And at your next gynecologist appointment, you may find yourself adding a Pap smear to the list. You know it’s important, and you know you need to get it—do you know why? A Pap smear might sound scary, but it’s a quick and painless test that’s super important for a woman’s routine health care. Here’s a rundown of the basics that will help you get ready for your next Pap smear.

What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear, also known as a Pap test, is a screening tool for cervical cancer. Your doctor will scrape cells from the opening of your cervix. At the lab, a technician will examine these cells under a microscope and look for abnormalities. This test is the number one way to prevent cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer in women.

Why is it important?
Regular Pap smears can stop cervical cancer before it even develops. It takes a long time for the disease to form, but it won’t show any signs or symptoms in the process. Pap smear tests are able to detect precancers (cell changes on the cervix) which can be treated before they turn into cervical cancer. The earlier your healthcare practitioner can detect abnormal cells, the earlier she can help prevent them from becoming cancerous.

Who should get Pap smears? When?
The National Cancer Institute recommends that women should start getting Pap smears at 21 years old and every three years after that. From 30 until 65, women should get one every five years. The recommended frequency might change depending on personal risk factors and past Pap smear results. A gynecologist will often perform a Pap smear along with a pelvic exam to make sure your uterus, ovaries, and other organs are healthy. If you’re not sure when you had your last Pap smear, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor.

How should I prepare for it?
Start off by scheduling your appointment when you’re not on your menstrual period; this will ensure that the test is done properly. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition also suggests avoiding tampons for 48 hours before the test. Avoid using vaginal creams or medications, unless directed by your doctor. It’s also a good idea to urinate beforehand, but providing a urine sample is already a typical part of gynecologist visits. Otherwise, try not to stress out. You might feel a little pressure, but it should be painless and over in a minute.

My Pap smear is abnormal. What now?
If your results are abnormal, don’t panic! This doesn’t mean you’re going to get cervical cancer. Depending on the abnormality, your doctor will explain the next step for your situation. Often, this will include additional testing or more frequent Pap smears—every six months or yearly—to keep tabs on further cell changes. Studies show that almost all cervical cancer cases test positive for human papillomavirus (HPV). So your doctor might also have you take an HPV test. Be aware that you can have a Pap test that comes back normal, yet you may test positive for HPV. If you do test positive for HPV, you'll need to take more frequent Pap smears to keep an eye out for any abnormalities that could signal cervical cancer.

Regardless, you’ve just taken a life-changing step in keeping your health in check. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, and it all comes down to getting routine Pap smears.

Edited on March 20, 2015 for accuracy.