A Pap smear, or pap test, is a medical procedure that tests for pre-malignant or malignant cells on a women's cervix. Regular pap smears are able to detect abnormalities in the cervix and although they may not have a 100 percent accuracy rate, they are an important part of a women's preventive health care.
Cervical cancer is diagnosed about 10,000 times each year and approximately 3,700 women die each year from this disease. Pap smears can help detect cervical cancer and alert women early, allowing them to seek treatment.
Who Should Have Pap Smears?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women should begin receiving pap tests either at age 21 or 3 years after becoming sexual active and tests should be repeated every three years. Usually, pap smears are discontinued when a woman reaches age 70, if they have had no abnormal pap smears for 10 years.
What Places a Woman at Risk for Cervical Cancer?
Human papilloma virus is one of the major causes of cervical cancer and in addition to pap smears for early detection, today there is also a vaccine available to help prevent cervical cancer. Other reasons a woman would have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer include smoking, multiple sexual partners and becoming sexually active at a young age.
What Happens During a Pap Test?
Pap tests are done ,in most cases, in a doctor's office. It is done when a woman is not menstruating, preferably between 10 and 20 days after the start of menstruation. This test can be completed by a physician, a physician's assistant, a nurse practitioner or a nurse midwife.
The health professional will visibly check the genital area and insert a speculum into the vagina. This equipment allows the medical professional to view the cervix. A cervical brush is inserted into the speculum and a sample of cells is collected from both inside the cervix and outside. Both samples are placed on a glass slide for evaluation.
Although a pap smear may feel uncomfortable for a moment, there is no pain for the woman during the procedure.
The Results of the Pap Test
A pap smear is sent to a laboratory for interpretation. The results will come back with the following information:
- Whether the sample was satisfactory
- Whether the sample was "within normal limits"
- Recommended follow up care
A pap smear takes only a few minutes, but can save the lives of women by detecting cervical cancer early and therefore giving a woman the opportunity to prevent or treat any abnormalities before they become life-threatening.
"Pap Smear", Carolyn Crandall, M.D. FACP, MedicinceNet.com
"Cervical Cancer and Pap Test Information", Date Unknown, National Cervical Cancer Coalition