Pap Smear: What You Need to Know

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Cervical cancer affects about 0.6% of women in the U.S, according to the National Cancer Institute. Roughly 66% of sufferers are still alive five years later. Most women diagnosed with this condition are 35 to 54 years old, but no one is immune to it.

While there’s no surefire way to prevent cervical cancer, you can take Pap smear tests regularly to detect the disease in its early stages. Pap smear guidelines depend on your age, sexual history, and other factors.

The test can detect abnormal changes in your cervix before they develop into cervical cancer. In some cases, it may detect non-cancerous conditions, such as infection or inflammation. These findings will allow your doctor to prescribe the most appropriate treatment or recommend further investigations.

But what is a Pap smear in the first place? Most importantly, when should you get one and what do the results mean? Here’s what you should know about cervical cancer screening and why it matters.

What Is a Pap Test?

A Papanicolaou test, or Pap smear, is a medical procedure that can detect cervical cancer and abnormal cells. It became available in the 1950s and has saved millions of lives ever since.

The World Health Organization reports that preventive measures, such as the Pap test and HPV vaccination, can prevent most cervical cancer cases. As the researchers note, this condition is highly treatable when detected in its early stages.

This minimally invasive screening test is performed in a doctor’s office or clinic. Your gynecologist will use a speculum to open the walls of your vagina and check the cervix. Next, he will collect cells from the surface of your cervix and then send them to a lab.

The procedure causes little or no discomfort and can be performed alone or along with other tests. For example, your doctor may also check your cells for human papillomavirus (HPV). While it’s possible to experience minor pain and bleeding after the test, these symptoms should subside within hours. 

What Is the Cervix?

Cervical cancer can form in the lining of your cervix or other areas, such as the glandular cells that secrete mucus. The cervix is a small cylinder-shaped organ consisting of muscle and connective tissue. It’s about 1.1 to 1.4 inches long and connects the uterus to the vagina.

This organ also produces mucus, among other functions. The mucus protects your uterus and other reproductive organs from pathogens, but it allows sperm to pass into the uterus.

Your doctor may order a Pap test to check for signs of cervical cancer or cervical dysplasia. The latter condition is characterized by abnormal cell growth on the surface of the cervix. Depending on the results, you may need a colposcopy, cervical biopsy, CT scan, or other additional tests.

Pap Smear Guidelines

Pap smear guidelines vary from one country to another. Most health organizations based in the U.S. recommend the following:

  • All women ages 21 to 65 should have Pap tests regularly.
  • If you’re 21 to 29 years old, get tested every three years.
  • If you’re 30 to 65 years old, get a Pap test every three years, an HPV test every five years, or both tests every five years.

Cervical cancer rarely affects women over the age of 65. Therefore, Pap testing may no longer be needed for those in this age group. But if you’re sexually active or have had abnormal results within the past three years, then you may still need to get screened.

Normally, women who’ve had their cervix removed may skip the test, but that’s not always the case. If you have a history of cervical cancer or other conditions, you should continue to get tested regularly. Your doctor is the only one who can decide on the best course of action.

Also, note that you may need more frequent screenings under certain circumstances. Let’s see a few examples:

  • You’re infected with HIV
  • You have been exposed to diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic form of estrogen, before birth
  • You have a weak or compromised immune system
  • Your most recent Pap/HPV tests had abnormal results

This type of cancer may also affect women who’ve never had sexual intercourse. If you’re a virgin, you should still get the Pap test and the HPV test every three years.

How to Prepare for a Pap Smear

The Pap test doesn’t require any special preparation. However, it’s recommended to avoid using vaginal sprays, lubricants, tampons, and other similar products for 48 hours before seeing your doctor. Vaginal creams, powders, and suppositories contain chemicals that can affect the test results.

Pap guidelines also advise douching or having sex prior to the test. Ideally, book a Pap smear at least five days after your period stops.

What Do Your Test Results Mean?

Pap test results can be normal, abnormal, or unclear. A normal result means that there are no unusual changes in the cells on your cervix. An abnormal or unclear result requires further investigation.

Abnormal results are not necessarily a sign of cervical cancer. Sometimes, they indicate minor changes that may return to normal on their own.

Unusual results, on the other hand, may result from errors in administering the test. The presence of blood, sperm, or mucus near the cervix can affect the results, too. In such cases, it’s best to undergo a new screening.

Cervical Cancer Screening Can Save Lives

Cervical cancer isn’t as common as breast, prostate, or lung cancer, but it can still be fatal. The best thing you can do is to get screened regularly. Your doctor will tell you more about the HPV and Pap tests, Pap smear guidelines, and what to expect.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. This simple test could save your life. Contact us to learn more or go ahead and find a healthcare provider in your area!