What is a Pap Smear?

by Katelyn Schwanke
(last updated November 15, 2011)

A pap smear, or pap test, is a simple test done by your gynecologist that determines whether or not you have healthy cervical tissue (found above the opening of the vagina). Pap smears have been done for over fifty years and significantly reduce chances of becoming seriously ill from cervical cancer.

Before your pap smear test your doctor will advise you to avoid sexual intercourse and avoid making an appointment when you are on your period. When your gynecologist does a pap smear you will lie down on the examining table and bend your knees so that you can place your feet into stirrups. These stirrups simply support your legs so that the doctor can easily examine you. The doctor will use a small tool to gently scrape a small tissue sample from the cervix. This tissue sample will be examined in a microbiology lab to determine whether or not the cells are healthy.

Pap smear tests should be done within three years of first having sexual intercourse; if you are 21 and have not had sexual intercourse you should ask your doctor about having a pap smear done anyway. After the age of 21 your doctor will advise that you have a pap smear annually. If you are in your 30s your doctor may determine that you should have a pap smear done every three years instead. There are a variety of risk factors that, despite age, will increase your need to have a pap smear done more regularly. Risk factors for more frequent pap smears include:

  • multiple sexual partners
  • HIV
  • Tobacco use
  • Family history of cervical cancer
  • History of early sexual intercourse (in the teens)

Pap smears may make you feel uncomfortable but are painless and can help detect cervical cancer earlier than any other method; if you have not had a pap smear and are at risk or over the age of 21 help yourself and call your doctor.

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