Many women feel apprehensive about a gynecological exam, especially those who are visiting a women’s health specialist for the first time. Your appointment may be just a routine check up, or you may have a particular question or concern about things like the regularity of menstrual periods, the best method of birth control, or sex and your sexuality. Your health care provider is there to listen, to examine you and help you understand the issues, and to support you in your personal decision-making process. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
What is a Pap Test?
The Pap test, named after its inventor Dr. George Papanicolaou, is an important part of a gynecological pelvic examination. Its primary purpose is to detect abnormal cells on the cervix before they become cancer. A sample of cells from the cervix is collected and examined to determine whether the cells appear normal or abnormal. If abnormal, the Pap results will indicate to what degree. These results are used by a health care provider to recommend if further evaluation is needed.
A Pap test is an important part of a routine gynecological examination. A gynecological exam may also include:
- Blood pressure
- Heart and lung screening
- Breast Examination
- Pelvic Examination
- Sexually Transmitted Infection tests as needed.
How is a Pap Test taken?
A device called a speculum is inserted into the vagina. This holds the vaginal walls apart and allows the cervix to be seen. (If you would like to see your cervix, ask your examiner to give you a mirror). A small plastic spatula and/or a small, soft, brush are used to take some cells from around the cervical opening. Pap tests take less than a minute to obtain and are typically pain-free.
The gathered cells are placed in a liquid fixative to prevent them from deteriorating. A good cell sample is essential for an accurate test. The vial then goes to a lab for microscopic analysis.
We now recognize that most abnormal Paps are caused by a sexually transmitted virus called HPV (human papilloma virus). If your pap test has an abnormality known as ASCUS (atypical cells of unknown significance) the lab will automatically test for the presence of HPV strains that are capable of causing more serious problems (and even cancer) in the future. If there is evidence of
these strains of HPV (called “high risk” strains) then further evaluation with a test called colposcopy may be recommended. There will be an additional charge for the High Risk HPV Test.
Why have a Pap Test?
A Pap test can detect cell changes years before actual cancer cells develop. The abnormal cells can then be carefully monitored or treated. Cervical cancer develops more slowly than most other cancers. Cervical cancer goes through a long stage during which it grows but does not invade healthy tissue. If the cancer is detected during this period, it can be treated successfully.
If, however, the cancer goes undetected, it may spread to other organs where it is difficult to treat and may be fatal.
If your Pap test is normal (negative), your health care provider will inform you of the next recommended Pap test.
Who should get a Pap test?
Pap tests are recommended for all women based on the following guidelines:
- A woman should have her first Pap test at age 21, regardless of when she initiated sexual activity, and every three years thereafter, through age 29. Between the ages of 30 and 65, a woman should have a Pap test every 3 years or alternatively, dual screening (Pap plus high risk HPV testing) can be done every 5 years.
- A Pap test does not test for sexually transmitted infections or other “female” problems. Ask your medical provider for more information on SPECIFIC TESTS for sexually transmitted infections.
- An abnormal Pap test does not provide a definite diagnosis.Further evaluation with colposcopy is needed to establish a diagnosis.
- Gardasil is a vaccine that prevents HPV infections that can lead to cervical cancer. Ask your healthcare provider if you would like more information about Gardasil.
A Pap Test CANNOT be done if:
Within the past 24 hours you have:
- used vaginal medication
- used a vaginal spermicide (foam, cream, gel, film, suppository)
Within the past 48 hours you have:
- had vaginal intercourse
- used lubricated condoms .
Cervical Health – Self Help Suggestions
- If you smoke, stop smoking; if you don’t smoke, don’t start.
- Use condoms to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections.
- Keep follow-up appointments with your medical provider.
Your Pap test is a valuable screening test and an important part of your health care. As many as 1 in 4 Pap tests may indicate some problem but these are usually easily managed. It is important that you understand your Pap test results and your follow-up care. If you have any other questions, please contact your clinician or schedule an appointment at 812-855-7688.