Why do Pap tests matter so much?

For many women, Pap tests are just a routine part of their health care. Been there, done that. Other women, however, are skipping this screening — and may not realize what they’re missing.

 Whether you’ve never had one, have just fallen behind or never miss a test, here are some important and helpful facts to know about Pap tests.

Q. What is it for?

A. A Pap test — sometimes called a Pap smear — is a screening test for cervical cancer. Your cervix is the lower, narrow part of your uterus that opens into your vagina.

 Early detection of cancer is important, but this test doesn’t stop there. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the main benefit of this screening is prevention. A Pap test can help find abnormal changes in the cells of your cervix before they turn into cancer.

Q. How is a Pap test done?

A. Your health care provider uses a device called a speculum to widen the vagina to see the cervix. Then he or she swabs or brushes the cervix to collect a cell sample. These cells will be sent to a lab for testing.

Q. Is a Pap test the same as a pelvic exam?

A. It’s easy to confuse them because they often happen at the same appointment — but they are different.

During a pelvic exam, your health care provider looks at and feels your reproductive organs — including your uterus and ovaries. This may help detect certain conditions. Pap tests are often done during a pelvic exam.

Q. How should I prepare for a Pap test?

A. Try to schedule your Pap test about 5 days after the last day of your period. You shouldn’t have it during your period.

For more accurate results, it’s best to avoid certain activities before your test. In the 2 to 3 days beforehand, avoid having vaginal sex — and don’t use tampons, birth control foams, vaginal creams or douches.

Q. Who should get a Pap test and how often?

A. The USPSTF recommends screening for most women ages 21 to 65 every 3 years. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.

Your health care provider may also talk with you about HPV testing. That’s because most cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

Q. What does it mean if the results are abnormal? What happens next?

A. The first thing to know: Most women who have abnormal results do not have cervical cancer. Often, the cells go back to normal on their own.

But it’s still important to follow up with your doctor. Together, you can decide the best course of action for you. That might be to do more testing and treatment — or to wait and monitor your cells with a repeat screening later.

Q. When can I stop having Pap tests?

A. Most women can stop screening for cervical cancer after age 65 — if they’ve had routine screenings up until then and are not at high risk for cervical cancer. You also can stop having Pap tests if you’ve had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and don’t have a history of abnormal cells or cervical cancer.

Q. Is there any way to prevent cervical cancer?

Men and women both can be immunized for the types of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all preteen boys and girls ages 11 to 12 years get the vaccines. Catch-up vaccines may be given through age 26. The shots are given in a series. To be protected, it’s important to get them all.

Talk with your doctor to find out whether the vaccine is right for you — or others in your family.


What to do next

Know your benefits. A routine Pap test is usually considered preventive care. Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.

Additional sources: American Cancer Society; National Institutes of Health

Last reviewed October 2017