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Pap Test

What is a Pap test?
How is the Pap test done?
Who should have a Pap test and how often?
When can I stop having Pap tests?
What happens if a Pap test result is abnormal?
Is the Pap test result always accurate?

What is a Pap test?

A Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear or cervical cytology screening) is a simple test that can detect abnormal cervical cells that may be precancerous or cancerous.

A Pap test is not the same thing as a pelvic exam. A Pap test allows for the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of abnormal cells.

How is the Pap test done?

A Pap test is very simple and is done quickly (less than a minute).

What to expect during a Pap test:

  • The patient will lie on the exam table, and a speculum will be used to open the vagina. This device allows a clear view of the upper vagina and cervix.
  • A small number of cells are removed from the cervix with a brush or similar tool, put into a liquid, and sent to a lab to be examined under a microscope, which will be examined for any abnormal cells.

Who should have a Pap test and how often?

At age 21, you should begin having a Pap test.

How often you continue to have them done depends on your age and health history:

  • Women younger than 30 should have a test every 2 years.
  • Women 30 years and older should have a test every 2 years.
  • After 3 normal test results in a row, women 30 and older may switch to having a test done every 3 years if:
    • She does not have a history of moderate or severe dysplasia
    • Her immune system is not weakened
    • She is not infected with HIV
    • Was not exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth.

When can I stop having a Pap test?

There is not a clear answer for when a woman can stop having a Pap test. Some experts recommend that a woman who is 65-70 can stop having a Pap test after three normal results in a row within the last 10 years. If you have certain risk factors, you should continue to routine Pap test.

Risk factors include:

  • Being sexually active
  • Having had multiple partners
  • A previous history of abnormal Pap test results.

What happens if a Pap test result is abnormal?

If you receive an abnormal Pap test result, you will receive additional testing including:

  • A repeat Pap test in 6 or 12 months
  • A test for human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Or a more detailed examination called a colposcopy.

If results of the follow-up test indicate precancerous changes, you may need treatment to remove the abnormal cells.

Is the Pap test result always accurate?

Pap test results are not always accurate, as is the case with any lab test. Sometimes the results show abnormal cells when the cells are actually normal. This is called a “false-positive” result.

On the other hand, sometimes a Pap test may not detect any abnormal cells when they are present. This is called a “false-negative” result.

Many factors can cause false results such as:

  • The sample may contain too few cells
  • There may not be enough abnormal cells to study
  • An infection or blood may hide abnormal cells
  • Douching or vaginal medications may wash away or dilute abnormal cells.

Your health care professional may suggest a repeat Pap test to re-check the results.