Pap Smear: The Key To Cervical Health?

January marks Cervical Health Awareness Month in the United States. If you’re looking to protect your cervical health, it’s important that you get used to having a regular pap smear done.

Coined after the Greek doctor George Nicholas Papanicolaou, who highlighted the medical importance of examining cells, a pap smear (referred to as both a Papanicolaou test and pap test) is a screening procedure that tests for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix.  According to studies, cervical cancer mortality rates declined following the implementation of regular pap smears in the 1950s.

In regards to risk factors for cervical cancer, an HPV is at the top of the list. HPV (human papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted virus. Transmission can occur through vaginal, anal and oral sex. As there still remains no cure for HPV, early detection is important. A pap smear doesn’t detect any sexual transmitted diseases. However, it does detect any changes in cervical cells caused by an HPV infection.

Do I need a pap smear?

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women should start at the age of 21, sexually active or not. They should then continue to get one every three years until the age of 65. Women in their 30s can also opt for a pap smear and HPV test every five years. However, if you are HIV positive or have a weakened immune system, then it is advisable to be screened more often.

If you’ve had a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus and cervix) then there really is no need for you to continue to have pap smears done – unless said hysterectomy was done as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer (1).

Preparing for a pap smear

In preparing for your pap smear, be sure not to engage in sexual intercourse the day before the test. If you are menstruating on the day, reschedule the examination as this can affect the results. Expectant mothers are likely to have their pap smears done on their first official visit to the obstetrician-gynecologist.

Pap smear examination

It is important to share any form of sexual or reproductive health information with your gynecologist before the process. You can also empty your bladder beforehand as the added pressure may make the process more uncomfortable.

During a pap smear, the gynecologist will have you lay back on an examination table, with your legs spread and feet resting in stirrups.
They will then slowly insert a speculum into your vagina. A speculum is a medical tool that will help keep your vaginal walls open so that your doctor has better access to your cervix.

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Once this happens, your doctor then collects a few small cells from your cervix. This is either done by using a spatula or brush, or both. The collected cell samples are then sent to the lab for observation.

If you want your pap smear to go smoothly, it’s important to relax. While you may feel some pressure,  you can do breathing exercises, listen to some music or ask your doctor to talk you through the process.

Pap smear results

Once your pap smear has been analyzed, it is either going to reveal normal or abnormal results.

If no abnormal cells are found, then your results are normal. This then means that you are unlikely to need a pap smear in the next three years.

However, if your pap smear results are abnormal, then abnormal cells are currently present in your cervix. While an abnormal result does not mean that you have cancer,  the present abnormal cells could be precancerous.

As a result, your doctor may recommend an HPV test and if it too reveals abnormal cells, then you will have an colposcopy test done. A colposcopy will have your doctor examining your cervix much more closely, using an instrument with magnifying lenses. If the tissues show any abnormality, then your doctor will perform a biopsy. A biopsy has the doctor extracting a small piece of tissue from the area to be properly examined.

While pap smears are quite accurate, some results may produce a false negative. This is due to lack of cells, low levels of abnormal cells and the presence of inflammatory cells and blood. This is why it is important that you never miss a pap smear examination.

Bottom line

Cervical cancer is the fourth-most frequent cancer in women thus one needs to protect themselves against it. A pap smear is the most important thing you can do in regards to your health.

A pap smear should only be done every three years, yet this does not mean that you should avoid visiting your doctor during that period. Aside from a pap smear, your gynecologist can also perform a pelvic exam, an STI test as well as discuss birth control options.