A Pap test, or Pap smear, is a routine medical test for women that involves collecting and testing cells from the cervix for signs of infection or cancer. All women should have Pap tests, but the recommendation for how often varies from woman to woman. In general, Pap tests should be done every two years starting at age 21. After age 30, women may be able to space them to every three years if they've had a history of normal Pap tests. Women may be able to stop having Pap tests after age 65, but this decision should be discussed with their doctor. Women who've had a hysterectomy may also no longer need a Pap test, but some women, such as those with a weakened immune system, may need more frequent Pap tests.
How a Pap Test Is Done
A Pap test is not painful for most women, but it can be uncomfortable. A doctor inserts a tool called a speculum into the vagina to examine the cervix and collect a few cells. These cells are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
Women should avoid sex, douching, tampons, and vaginal creams and other vaginal products for at least two days before a Pap test so as not to affect the results. In addition, it’s best to schedule the test so that it doesn’t occur during a menstrual period.
Importance of the Pap Test
A Pap test is an important tool for detecting cervical cancer early -- and one that can be lifesaving. The survival rate is quite high when cervical cancer is detected and treated early on. Because cervical cancer often shows no outward signs or symptoms at first, testing is critical. Research has shown that a relatively new test for HPV (human papillomavirus) may be equally effective at detecting early signs of cervical cancer, but to date most medical experts still prefer the Pap test.
SOURCES: Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; U.S. National Cancer Institute
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