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The Pap Test
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The Pap test is the sampling of cells from your cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The Pap test is also commonly referred to as the “Pap smear” and is crucial in the early detection of cervical cancer. The Pap test is performed as a part of your pelvic exam. Pap tests can detect infections and inflammation and other types of abnormal cells, known as dysplasia. Remember that cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells. By testing the cells in your cervix once a year in your annual Pap test, your doctor will be able to determine if any abnormal cells are present. If there are abnormalities, your test result will be positive. That doesn’t mean that you have cancer, but it does mean you will need to undergo further testing. This can include another Pap test or a coloscopy, which allows your doctor to examine the cervix and vagina very closely. Abnormal results might indicate an infection or a sexually transmitted disease. Just like most clinical tests, Pap tests are not 100% effective. That means that sometimes you can receive false positive, or even false negative results. The incidence of false results is very rare, and can be helped by maintaining regular yearly exams. Even though there is a margin of error, Pap tests are very reliable, and new improvements are constantly making the Pap test even more efficient and accurate. An HPV screen may be used to help evaluate an atypical Pap test.

You should have a Pap test regularly, which means once a year at your annual visit to the ob/gyn. After you have had three successive yearly Pap tests with normal results some ob/gyns will recommend that you wait three years before your next exam if you’re over 30. This decision is up to you, and some women prefer to take the necessary precautions and continue with the annual routine even if it’s not completely necessary. Regardless of your schedule, you should continue to have Pap tests throughout your life and even after menopause.

If you have had a hysterectomy, your doctor might tell you it isn’t necessary for you to have a Pap test. However, if your hysterectomy was due to cancer, then you should continue to have Pap tests, and perhaps more often than once a year. Some women will decide not to have any more Pap tests after they have had consecutively normal results and have reached the age of 65. This decision is up to each woman and her doctor.

Following these guidelines will make it easier to detect abnormal cells:

  • Try to avoid using any perfumes or douche products up to 24 hours before your Pap test.
  • You should not schedule your Pap test when you have your period.
  • You also should avoid having sex for 24 hours before your Pap test.

The Pap test itself is very brief. It consists of only a few steps, and your ob/gyn is usually experienced with the procedure, making it as brief and painless as possible.

  • During your Pap test, you’ll be asked to lie back on the table in the exam room with your feet nestled into stirrups and your knees falling to the side.
  • Remember that you will have no clothes on at the ob/gyn, but you will be covered by a paper robe or a sheet.
  • Your ob/gyn will insert a speculum into your vagina to widen it. The speculum is a small, smooth plastic or metal instrument that is gently inserted into the vagina to spread it open slightly.
  • Your doctor will then use a special stick, brush or swab to remove a few cells from the inside and around the cervix.
  • These cells are placed on a glass slide or into a special liquid solutions and sent to a lab where they will be tested for any abnormalities. Many women associate feelings of discomfort with the Pap test, and that is to be expected.

The combination of the stirrups, the speculum and the slight scraping sensation of the cell removal doesn’t necessarily contribute to fond memories. Never let these apprehensions deter you from getting a Pap test. Just remember that it’s very useful in the detection and prevention of gynecological health problems, particularly cervical cancer. In fact, cervical cancer is not life-threatening when caught early. If it is caught in later stages, the cancer could spread to other parts of your body and this makes it much more difficult to treat.