Pap smears… a dreaded right of passage for females entering adulthood… What are they and why do we need them?

woman talking to provider

A pap smear tests for cervical cancer by collecting a sample of cells from the cervix. (The cervix is the opening to the uterus, or womb, and is reached by going up through the vagina). The test can either detect cancerous cells, or it can see if cervical cells are changing, which is a sign that cancer may develop in the future. The sample of cells taken is typically tested for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) as well, a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cancer if untreated. The sooner an abnormality is detected, the sooner treatment can start.

There are a few things you can do to ensure the sample collected is as pure as possible:

  • Do not have penetrative sex for 24 hours before the appointment
  • Schedule the appointment when you are not on your period, light bleeding is okay
  • Put NOTHING into your vagina 24 hours before the appointment (douches, tampons, lubricants, birth control gels, you get the picture…)

Do the best that you can, you don’t want to have to get a pap smear twice because of a faulty sample.

What to expect at the appointment:

  • When it’s time for the pap smear, you will be directed to take off your clothing from the waist down and have a seat on the exam table. A sheet will be there for you to cover up.
  • Your provider will direct you to lay back with your knees up and to place your feet in stirrups.
  • To get a clear view of the cervix, your provider will gently insert a speculum to open up the vagina. The speculum will remain there to maintain the view.
  • Your provider will then swab your cervix with a small brush to collect the cells.
  • After the sample has been taken, the cells are sent to the lab for analysis.

How long does it take?

The entire process should only take a few minutes. Typically, pap smears are done during a routine physical exam.

How long does it take to get results?

Results usually come back in few weeks.

Will it hurt?

The speculum holding the vagina open can be uncomfortable, but not painful. If you are super tense and clenching your muscles, it will make the insertion more difficult and unpleasant for you. Do your best to relax. Some people have vaginal spotting. Bring a pad just in case.

When should I get my first pap smear?

It is recommended that you get your first pap smear at the age of 21.

How often do I need a pap smear?

It is recommended that you get one every 3 years until the age of 65. Once you turn 30, if the pap smear is combined with an HPV test, then you only need to go every 5 years. If you have any risk factors, such as a poor immune system or you've had abnormal cells on a previous pap smear, your provider may recommend that you get tested more often.

Don’t fear a pap smear

Yes, they can seem a bit invasive, but catching abnormal cells early is worth it. If cervical cancer is left untreated, it can lead to death.

Be proactive and schedule an appointment for a pap smear with your women’s health or family medicine provider at NH+C.

Learn more about Women's Health Gynecology or call (507) 646-1478 to schedule an appointment. Learn more about Family Medicine or call your clinic to make an appointment.