Pap smears are a routine aspect of gynecological care. But if you’ve never had one before, it’s normal to be a bit nervous. Here’s what to expect to quell any fears you may have.
What Are Pap Smears?
Also referred to as a Pap test, the Pap smear is used to look for cellular changes in the cervix that could become cancerous if left untreated. This routine procedure is performed right in the doctor’s office, typically as part of your annual preventative exam.
During the process, your provider will gently remove cells from your cervix with a specifically designed brush. Once the cells are extracted, medical experts will inspect them under a microscope, specifically looking for signs of cervical dysplasia, or precancerous changes. Your doctor will discuss any abnormal results with you as soon as they are available.
According to the Cervical Cancer Screening and Prevention guidelines, women at an average risk for cervical cancer should begin receiving Pap smears at the age of 21.
What Is the Purpose of a Pap Smear?
While medical experts primarily use Pap test results to look for precancerous cells that could lead to cervical cancer, the National Cancer Institute notes that the test can also help uncover infections or other causes of inflammation.
Sometimes, a Pap smear may also be combined with an HPV test. Instead of identifying precancerous cells, however, medical professionals use the HPV test results to detect the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can later cause cellular changes that lead to cervical cancer. In tandem, both tests allow your doctor to determine your cervical and vaginal health.
What Happens During a Pap Smear?
While a pap smear can be slightly uncomfortable, the procedure usually lasts less than 30 seconds. During the process, you’ll undress from the waist down and then lie on your back with your feet resting in stirrups. Your doctor will slowly insert a speculum, which opens the vaginal walls to access the cervix. In the final step, your doctor will gently brush your cervix with a special tool to receive cells from the area.
Though generally quick and simple, some women report slight irritation during the test, and it’s normal to experience some vaginal bleeding or cramping afterward.
How Can I Prepare for the Pap Test?
Ideally, you’ll want to plan your appointment for a time when you’re not menstruating heavily. Blood can make it more difficult to get an accurate test on cervical cells.
When you arrive for your appointment you may also ask to empty your bladder, to eliminate any added pressure and alleviate discomfort during the test. Just be sure to first ask a nurse or front desk associate whether you’ll also need to provide a urine sample during your visit.
Although having a Pap test may be momentarily uncomfortable, it’s an important component of comprehensive gynecological care which could have life-saving benefits. While cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death in U.S. women, the Pap test has significantly decreased rates by uncovering the presence of cancer early, when treatment is most effective.
If you’re due for your Pap smear, or are embarking on it for the first time, our providers will make the process as comfortable as possible, and are ready to answer any questions you may have. Schedule an appointment online or call us at (770) 385-8954.