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Pap Smear Q&A

What exactly is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a test done to see if you have changes to the cells on your cervix. The cells collected during the test are placed on a slide and sent to a lab for analysis. A Pap smear tests for cervical cancer or for abnormal cells that have the potential to turn into cervical cancer. The name Pap smear comes from Greek physician, Dr. George Papanicolaou who first published his research on uterine cancer in 1928.

How is it performed?

During your pelvic exam, the doctor will use a small brush, cotton swab or spatula to rub against your cervix and collect a sampling of cells. It takes just a few seconds to get the sample.

Does it hurt?

The Pap smear itself shouldn’t cause much discomfort. You may notice a slight bit of pressure as the sample is collected.

How should I prepare for the test?

Avoid using douches or vaginal creams within 24 hours of the test. If you are on your period or have a vaginal infection, the test may be inaccurate — so do let your doctor know if you should postpone the test.

What can’t a Pap smear tell you?

A Pap smear cannot tell you if you have a sexually transmitted disease or if you have cancer apart from cervical cancer. Other tests would be necessary if you suspect other conditions.

What if my results are abnormal?

Abnormal results do not mean you have cancer. You may have an inflammation or minor cell changes that should be monitored, but often go away on their own. If your tests are abnormal, the doctors may recommend you be tested for HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV causes genital warts and certain types increase your chance of cervical cancer. In some cases, the doctor will order a colposcopy.

What is a colposcopy?

In a colposcopy, the doctor examines your cervix with an instrument called a colposcope, a tool that gives a better view of the cervix. Usually, the doctor applies a solution to the cervix so that irregular or suspicious areas are more visible. The doctor then visually inspects these areas and looks for abnormalities that warrant further examination. A biopsy will be performed and sent to a lab for further analysis.