Answers to Common Questions About Pap Tests

Whether it’s your first Pap test or you've had them for years, getting tested can be a tad unnerving.  Knowing what to expect can ease your mind and make your visit more comfortable.  Here are answers to common questions about Pap tests.

What is a Pap Test?

Pap stands for “Papanicolaou test,” a screening method that detects pre-cancer and cancer cells of the cervix. Your cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.

Why Do I Need a Pap Test?

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide. Approximately one out of four women carries HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Fortunately, one out of 1,000 women with HPV will develop cervical cancer in her lifetime. If your Pap test detects abnormal cells, you can easily get treatment before they develop into cancer.

How is the Pap Exam Done?

Your doctor inserts a “speculum” into your vagina.  This instrument allows your doctor to see and collect cells from your cervix with a tool similar to a long Q-tip. The collected cells are “smeared” on to a microscope slide and viewed carefully for abnormal cells. The test may be mildly uncomfortable, but is not painful.

How Often Do I Need a Pap Test?

All women should have a yearly physical examination. Typically, your doctor will perform a Pap smear at these intervals:

  • Ages 21-29: every 3 years (provided previous Pap tests have been normal)
  • Ages 30-65: every 5 years, along with HPV testing
  • After age 65: not recommended (provided previous Pap tests have been normal)

Your doctor will talk with you about the need for and timing of screenings if you've had a hysterectomy or a history that includes HIV, chemotherapy, cancer or abnormal Pap smears, or organ transplants.

What Do I Do if the Pap Test is Abnormal?

Your doctor will contact you. He or she may recommend follow-up tests or more frequent Pap test screenings.

How Effective is the Pap Test?

When women are screened regularly, and follow up on abnormal results, the Pap test can decrease cervical cancer death by 80 percent.  The Pap test does not find all cervical cancers. However, over half of all invasive cervical cancers in the U.S. occur in women that have never had a Pap smear.

Can I Reduce My Odds of Cervical Cancer?

Yes.  Get regular Pap tests, use condoms, get the HPV vaccine, and don’t smoke. These steps can decrease your risk of cervical cancer.

References (click to view)

4 ways to limit your cancer risk -- they can save your life
Sept. 14, 2016, In "Cancer Care"


What are your risks for oral cancer? Be aware
Aug. 11, 2016, In "Cancer Care"


Cancer treatments -- Might a cure already be inside you?
Aug. 24, 2016, In "Cancer Care"

Meet the Author

Scott Kamelle, MD is a board-certified Gynecologic Oncologist at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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