What is pap test?

Pap Test
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Pap test: Overview

A Pap test is done to look for changes in the cells of the cervix. During a Pap test, a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix is collected by your doctor. The sample is then spread on a slide (Pap smear) or mixed in a liquid fixative (liquid-based cytology) and sent to a lab for examination under a microscope. The cells are examined for abnormalities that may point to abnormal cell changes, such as dysplasia or cervical cancer.

The recommended Pap test schedule is based on your age and on things that increase your risk. Talk to your doctor about how often to have this test.

Cervical cancer is often caused by a high-risk type of the human papillomavirus (HPV). Talk to your doctor about getting the HPV shots to prevent infection with the types of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer.

Pap test (Papanicolaou test or Pap smear)

A Pap test is a test that looks for changes in the cells of the cervix. During the test, your doctor collects a small sample of cells from the cervix, the lower part of your uterus. The cells are sent to a lab and tested to see if they contain certain changes that could turn into cervical cancer.

When your Pap test result is "abnormal," it means that the test found some cells that don't look normal. They may not be cancer, but you may need more testing to find out for sure.

How do you prepare for a Pap test?

  • Try to schedule the test when you're not having your period, since blood can interfere with the results of the test. If your bleeding is light, you may still be able to have a Pap test.
  • Do not use douches, tampons, vaginal medicines, sprays, or powders for at least 24 hours before your test.
  • Some doctors recommend that you avoid sex for 24 hours before a Pap test.
  • If you've had problems with pelvic exams in the past or have any concerns about having the test, tell your doctor.

What are the risks of a Pap test?

There is very little chance of a problem from having a Pap test. You may have a small amount of vaginal bleeding after this test. And you may want to use a pad or panty liner to protect your clothes from any spotting.

How does having a Pap test feel?

You may feel some pressure or mild discomfort when the speculum is placed in your vagina. You may also feel some pressure when the sample of cervical cells is being collected.

What do the results of a Pap test mean?

Results of a Pap test are usually ready in 1 to 2 weeks. Ask your doctor when you can expect the results.

Normal

The sample contained enough cells, and no abnormal cells were found.

Normal Pap test results don't completely rule out the presence of abnormal cells (dysplasia) or cervical cancer.

Unclear

It could mean that there weren't enough cells to test.

You may need to be retested sooner.

Abnormal

The sample had abnormal cells. It means that you have changes on your cervix that will either go away on their own, or that could, over time, lead to cervical cancer. Your doctor will let you know what comes next.

Pap test: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have vaginal bleeding or pain for more than 2 days after the test. It is normal to have a small amount of bleeding for a day or two after the test.

How is a Pap test done?

Before the test

You may want to empty your bladder before the exam.

You will need to take off your clothes below the waist and drape a paper or cloth covering around your waist. You will then lie on your back on an exam table with your feet and legs supported by footrests.

During the test

The doctor will place a speculum into your vagina. It opens the vagina a little bit. This allows the inside of the vagina and the cervix to be examined.

Your doctor will collect several samples of cells from your cervix using a cotton swab, a brush, or a small spatula. Cells are collected from the visible part of the cervix as well as from its opening. If you don't have a cervix, cells from the vagina are collected if a Pap test is needed. The cells are smeared on a slide or mixed in a liquid fixative and sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.

Why is a Pap test done?

A Pap test is done to look for changes in the cells of the cervix. Finding these changes and treating them when needed will greatly lower your chance of getting cervical cancer.

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