What Women Need To Know About Pap Smears
What women need to know about Pap smears
This is what a Pap smear looks like under a microscope.
The INSIDER Summary:
- Women over 21 years old should be getting a Pap smear every three years.
- It's a crucial test that looks for cervical cancer.
- It can be a little uncomfortable — but it's over in a few seconds.
Cervical cancer used to be the number one cause of cancer death in American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But today it leads to only about 4,000 deaths per year — much fewer than deadlier breast or ovarian cancer.
That's a huge advance for women, and it happened largely because of a simple test called the Pap smear. Haven't started getting them yet? Here's everything you need to know.
A Pap smear (or Pap test) looks for cancer in your cervix.
A quick anatomy refresher.
The cervix connects the upper part of the uterus to the vagina. The small opening at the center allows for the flow of menstrual blood. And during childbirth, that opening dilates — or expands — to accommodate the baby.
The test got its name from the guy who invented it back in the 1920s: a Greek researcher named Georgios Papanicolaou. The "smear" part comes from the fact that cervical cells used to be smeared onto microscope slides in order to examine them.
What's great about the Pap smear is that it's meant to detect abnormal changes in cervical cells way before they become cancerous, (ACOG). That means any potential problems can be caught early.
The test happens in a gynecologist's office.
Pap smears only take a few seconds.
First, the gynecologist will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold it open. Then, he or she will use a small, brush-like tool to gently scrape some cells from your cervix.
It's not painful, but it can be uncomfortable. Unless you have an IUD, you may not have had many things touch — let alone scrape — your cervix. Luckily, it's over in just a few seconds.
The sample of cells is sent to a lab. Later, your doctor will contact you with the results. If you get a normal result, you're all good until your next Pap smear. If you get an abnormal result, don't panic. It does not necessarily mean that you have cancer.
Most abnormal Pap smears , or HPV.
HPV is a super-common STD that roughly a quarter of American adults have. Since the majority of HPV cases clear up without treatment, abnormal cervical cells can resolve on their own, too. But certain high-risk strains of HPV cause more than 90% of cervical cancers, according to the CDC.
That means your doctor may need you to come back for further testing to figure out how severe your abnormalities are and which HPV strain you might have, . (Side note: There's also a super-effective vaccine that can protect you against HPV.)
Ultimately, abnormal cervical cells may be cut out of your cervix (a.k.a. "") or burned off using a small electrified wire (a.k.a. "").
How often you should get pap smears depends on your age.
Women over 21 should start getting Pap smears ASAP.
Doctors that women should get a Pap smear every year. But in 2012, after studies found that yearly testing had no advantage over less-frequent testing. Getting a Pap every few years is still just as effective in catching cancer. It also cuts down on unnecessary panic from abnormal results that end up being no big deal.
The current recommendations from the ACOG are as follows:
- If you're younger than 21, you don't need to get Pap smears.
- If you're between 21 and 29, get a Pap smear every three years.
- If you're between 30 and 65, get a Pap smear every three years OR a Pap smear plus an HPV test every five years.
- If you're older than 65, you can stop getting Pap smears only if you've had several years of normal tests. (See here for specifics.)
One final note: The above recommendations are for healthy women only. If you have a compromised immune system or history of cervical cancer, or if you were exposed to the drug before birth, your doctor will have you get tested more often.
Video: Pap and HPV Testing | Nucleus Health
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