What is a Pap Smear?

March 21, 2017

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap test is a procedure that helps find changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. (The cervix is the part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.) For this test, a small sample of cells is gently scraped from the surface of  the cervix. This is done in your healthcare provider's office. The cells are then analyzed in a lab. A Pap test is a safe procedure. It takes just a few minutes and causes little or no discomfort.

Why should I have a Pap smear?

Precancerous problems in the cervix produce no symptoms. Often, the only way to know about cervical changes is to do a Pap test. A Pap test can find cervical problems early, when they are easier to treat. Pap tests can also detect some infections of the cervix and vagina.

How is a Pap smear performed?

A Pap test is a simple test that is performed in a doctor's office or clinic. 

  1. You lie on an exam table with your feet in stirrups (foot rests). This is the usual position for a pelvic exam (an exam of the reproductive organs).

  2. Your healthcare provider uses a speculum (a metal or plastic instrument) to gently open the vagina.

  3. Cells are taken from the cervix with a small spatula. A small brush is then used to remove cells from inside the cervical canal. You may feel pressure or slight discomfort.

  4. There are two methods to preserve the cells taken in the Pap test. The conventional (regular) method is to smear the cells  directly onto a glass microscope slide and spay it with a substance to preserve the cells. In the newer method, liquid-based method, the cells are placed into a vial of liquid preservative. In both methods the samples are sent to a laboratory for examination

How often should I have a Pap smear?

Ask your healthcare provider when to start having Pap tests, and how often to have them. Follow these guidelines:

  • A first Pap test within 3 years of first having vaginal sexual intercourse, or by age 21.

  • A pap test every year with the regular Pap test or every 2 years using the newer liquid-based Pap test .

  • A Pap test every 2 years if, by age 30, you have had 3 normal Pap tests in a row.

  • A Pap test each year if you have a risk factor for cervical cancer. Risk factors include a previous abnormal PAP,  test having HPV or HIV, immune suppression, or exposure to the medication DES while your mother was pregnant with you.

  • If you're over 70 and have had 3 normal results in a row, no abnormal results in the last 10 years, and no risk factors, you may not need to continue having Pap tests.


March 21, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN,Lambert, J.G. M.D.,Nancy BowersNancy Bowers RN MPH