What Does the Pap Test Show and Who Needs It?

The Pap test (also referred to as the Pap smear) is one of the most common types of cytological analyses that every woman faces. How often women should have it done and why it's important?

Dr. Asya

Scientific Advisor

The Pap test involves a smear from the cervix. Its primary goal is to identify cellular changes that can be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Doctors use a pap test to screen for cancers in the cervix. Thanks to such tests, early detection of malignant neoplasms and some other gynecological diseases are possible.

How is the Pap test done?

During a gynecological examination, the cells of the cervix are scraped off and examined for abnormal growth. The doctor enters a special cervical brush—a thin plastic stick with specially shaped bristles—into the vagina, whose epithelial cells touch the walls of the cervix.

The collected samples are then transferred to a glass slide. After that, the biological material is sent to the laboratory, where the cells are stained and examined under a microscope. The test results are ready in 1–3 days but in urgent cases can be issued within an hour.

Who needs to take a Pap test and how often?

According to doctors, women between 21 to 65 years old should take the test every three years. If you are over 30 years old and you do not have any issues it is carried out every five years. Doctors will also screen for HPV, which indicates an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Women over 65 with normal smear results may choose not to take the test if the last three tests showed no abnormalities.

More frequent tests will be required if an HIV test is positive, or if the immune system is weakened from chemotherapy or organ transplants.

How does someone prepare for a Pap test?

Menstrual bleeding is not an issue, but it can alter the results of the test. It is advised to schedule a test 5 days after the end of your period. Do not use tampons, vaginal creams, spermicides, lubricants, or vaginal medications 2–3 days before your smear. Also, do not wash your intimate parts too intensely or have sex 2–3 days before the test.

Is it dangerous to take a Pap test when pregnant?

In most cases, it is safe to have a smear in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. After this period, the test may be less accurate and more painful. After giving birth, you need to wait 12 weeks to get an accurate result.

What if the test result is “bad”?

Abnormal values are common. The Pap test is just the first step towards early diagnosis of cervical cancer. If abnormalities are found, the doctor will advise a repeated Pap test after a while, a colposcopy (a detailed examination of the cervix using a special microscope), and an HPV test. Based on your results and medical history, your doctor will develop your optimal treatment plan.

23 March 2021

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