Once your are around the age of 21, Pap tests should be a routine part of your annual OB/GYN visit. In most women, Pap tests are done every two years and after three normal Pap test results in a row your gynecologist may allow you to have the test every three years. The Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, is a simple procedure that can help detect abnormal cervical cells. Having a routine Pap test helps decrease the chance that abnormal cells are missed.
The main cause of cervical cancer is a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of HPV and a few types can cause cervical cancer. HPV is passed from person to person during sexual activity. Usually, a woman’s immune system clears the virus quickly, and the infection goes away by itself. But in some women, HPV persists and causes changes in cervical cells. Cells infected with HPV look abnormal under a microscope and can be detected by the Pap test. Most of the time, these changes go away on their own without treatment.
A Pap test is simple and fast. Your gynecologist will have you lie on the exam table, and then a speculum is used to open the vagina. This device gives a clear view of the cervix and upper vagina. A small number of cells are removed from the cervix with a brush or other tool. The cells are put into a liquid and sent to a lab, where they are placed on a glass slide. Sometimes, the cell sample is directly placed on a glass slide before it is sent to the lab. At the lab, the sample is examined using a microscope to see if abnormal cells are present.
Many women have abnormal Pap test results, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. It merely means that abnormal cells have been found. It often takes years before abnormal cells can become cancer. Cells that are mildly abnormal may go away on their own. If you do have an abnormal Pap test you gynecologist may require you to have an additional Pap test in 6 months to monitor the results. As with any lab test, Pap test results are not always accurate. Sometimes, the results show abnormal cells when the cells are normal. This is called a “false-positive” result. A Pap test also may not detect abnormal cells when they are present. This is called a “false-negative” result. There are additional tests that can be done to give your gynecologist a more detailed examination such as an HPV test or a colposcopy. If the follow-up tests indicate precancerous changes, you may need treatment to remove the abnormal cells.
Your gynecologist will be able to discuss the procedure with you and answer any questions you may have before, during or after. They will also be able to talk with you about further tests, if necessary, and let you know what options you have.