What is a Pap Smear, & Why Do You Need One?

A black woman gynecologist speaks with a black woman patient about scheduling her pap smear. The gynecologist is facing towards the viewer, and can be seen smiling, while the patient is facing away.

If you’re new to the world of gynecology, either because you’re young or you’ve just never gotten around to making an appointment, you might not know what a Pap smear is or why getting one is important. We’ve put together a simple overview of the Pap smear: what it is, what’s involved, when you need one, and why!

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a procedure to test for cervical dysplasia (precancerous cells on the cervix) and cervical cancer. When you make a well woman appointment with your gynecologist, she will likely perform a Pap smear if you are due for one. Essentially, a Pap smear involves collecting cells from your cervix (which is the lower, narrow end of your uterus that’s at the top of your vagina).

It’s a very quick and relatively painless procedure where your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of your vagina apart so that your doctor can easily see your cervix. Inserting the speculum may cause a sensation of pressure in your pelvic area.

Then your doctor will take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat scraping device called a spatula. This usually doesn’t hurt, although some women find it to be uncomfortable. However, the procedure is over in just minutes and then they will remove the speculum and the exam is complete.

What does a Pap smear do for my health?

A Pap smear’s main job is to check for signs of precancerous or cancerous cells which could mean the onset of cervical cancer. This is why it’s recommended that women receive a Pap smear routinely (depending on a woman’s age and situation, that could be annually or every 3 years or so – your doctor will recommend what’s best for you.)

In addition, a Pap test can be combined with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV) — the common sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer.

The idea is, the earlier a doctor can catch a precancerous change, the easier it will be to manage and hopefully stop from progressing into a dangerous cancer.

Do all women need a Pap smear? When should I get one?

The best thing you can do is make an appointment with a gynecologist. You and your doctor will decide when it’s time for you to begin having Pap smears and how often you should have the test.

If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend more-frequent Pap smears, regardless of your age. These risk factors include:

  • A diagnosis of cervical cancer or a Pap smear that showed precancerous cells
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
  • HIV infection
  • Weakened immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic corticosteroid use

In general, doctors recommend beginning Pap testing at age 21.

Pap smears are nothing to be afraid of – they are a vital part of keeping up with your health, just like going to the dentist.

Think of it as just another way of making sure you’re healthy, from the inside out. Even if you don’t plan on having children, your reproductive system is important as it can affect how you feel each and every day. Pap smears can help ensure you don’t have any underlying health issues which are keeping you from living your best life. If it’s been awhile, be sure to schedule a well woman exam today! Your body will thank you.

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