What Is a Pap Smear Test?
A Pap smear (Papanicolau smear; also known as the Pap test) is a simple and painless screening test for cervical cancer. During a routine pelvic exam, your OBGYN will collect sample cells from your cervix (the end of your uterus, that extends into the vagina).
These cells are placed on a glass slide and stained with a Papanicolau stain, a substance that allows the doctors to notice, under the microscope, if there are any pre-malignant (pre-cancer) changes or even malignant ones (caused by cancer).
The Pap smear has a good sensitivity, even if not perfect.
In some cases false positives can happen (a normal smear is being classified as abnormal) and also false negatives (cancer cells not being noticed).
Even if not 100% accurate, only few women who regularly have Pap smears develop cervical cancer, this is why a Papanicolau smear is the best way to detect any anomalies, before the cancer is too advanced.
In most cases a Pap smear will identify cell abnormalities, even before they can turn malignant, making your condition easily treatable.
Ovarian, vaginal or uterine cancer cannot be detected with a Pap smear, but, since you are being given a complete pelvic (gynecologic) exam with your Pap test, this allows your doctor to notice any malignant changes in your reproductive system.
Cervical cancer can be diagnosed only with a biopsy.
It usually develops slowly, this is why regular Pap smears can allow your doctor to notice it before it reaches advances life-threatening stages.
How is a Pap smear performed?
The Pap smear is done during a regular pelvic exam, usually done by your OBGYN. Other healthcare professionals can also examine you, but it’s usually done by a gynecologist.
A speculum is inserted into the vaginal area, allowing the doctor to examine it.
A small swab/brush is inserted into the cervix opening and twirled around to collect a sample of cells. A second sample is collected from the cervix surface.
Samples are placed in a solution and then taken to the laboratory for further examination.
The results usually come within few days, up to 2 weeks.
Make sure you are being informed on the results, if your doctor fails to inform you within a month, ask for your Pap smear results.
If you already had positive Pap smear tests (a history of abnormal cells collected from your cervix), it’s important to inform your doctor. Make sure you can provide information about the procedures and treatments, so that it can be mentioned on the lab form.
Having had previous cell abnormalities will alert the medical professional who is interpreting your Pap smear look closer for any possible abnormalities.
Sometimes your Pap test results are inconclusive.
Here are some cases:
- inadequate sample – drying artifact or excessive blood, factors that can interfere with the sample being read
- unsatisfactory due to excessive inflammation – inflammation in the cervical area can be caused by infections or
- irritations. In this case treatment might be prescribed and, afterwards, a second Pap smear performed, to make sure it can be properly interpreted.
What you should know about Pap smear
- avoid sexual contact and vaginal irrigation 24-48 hours before your scheduled Papanicolau test
- the ideal time to have a Pap smear is between days 10 and 20 of your menstrual cycle (day 1is the first day of your period)
- collecting your cervical cells should be avoided during menstruation.
- having regular Pap tests can prevent cervical cancer. While the test itself is not 100% accurate, most women who are facing invasive cervical cancer (and many dying because of it), have not had a Pap smear in the past 5 years. Usually uninsured women or women from various poor rural areas are the ones being affected, but there are many from more privileged backgrounds in the same situation.
Depending on your doctor’s recommendation you should have a Pap smear done at least every 2-3 years, if not annually. This gives you a chance to spot any cancerous cells before it spreads into your body and puts your life at risk.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancers and, fortunately, still one of the most preventable and treatable of all.
If your Papanicolau test comes abnormal, follow your gynecologist-obstetrician recommendation
If you were treated for cervical dysplasia it is advised to have regular Papanicolau tests, since the abnormal cells can reappear, even if properly removed in the first place.