Why Pap tests matter: what women need to know

This crucial test may help prevent cervical cancer

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 the two 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 five 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 you test. In the two to three 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 most women ages 21 to 65 every three years. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.

Your health 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 the results are abonormal? 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.

What to do next

Know your benefits. A routine Pap test is usually considered preventive care. That means it’s generally covered by your health plan with no copays, coinsurance or deductibles.1 But this isn’t always the case.

Look up other kinds of preventive care that may be recommended for you.


  1. Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.


American Cancer Society; National Institutes of Health