What Is a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear is a routine test of the female reproductive system done to screen for cervical cancer. A gynecologist (reproductive health doctor) will collect cells directly from the cervix, the long and narrow tube at the bottom of  the uterus. Pap smears may seem a little intimidating, scary, or confusing, but they don't have to be. Here’s a rundown on what to expect: 

When do you have to start getting Pap smears? 

Pap smears check the cervix for pre-cancer cells, which help with early detection of cervical cancer. It’s important to get routinely tested so that if these cells are found they can be treated before they turn into cervical cancer. It’s recommended that people start getting pap smears around age 21 (abnormal cells are unlikely at an earlier age) and continue getting them every three years. Some gynecologists may perform them earlier than 21, generally when a person is sexually active. The sexually transmitted disease HPV is one of the main causes of cervical cancer. It’s important to communicate your sexual history with your doctor to make sure you’re getting checked when you need to be. 

How does it work? 

To begin the pap smear, the healthcare provider will ask their patient to undress from the waist down and then sit in a gynecological chair that has stirrups, which are foot holders that help keep the legs spread. 

The healthcare provider will insert a metal or plastic speculum into the vagina. The speculum is a duck-bill shaped device that opens up the vagina, allowing the healthcare provider to see and reach the cervix. The speculum can look a little scary and, once inserted, the patient might  feel some pressure, but it shouldn’t cause anything close to excruciating pain. For patients who are worried about the size, they can always request the smallest sized speculum or a pediatric one, which is slightly narrower. 

Then, the healthcare provider will use a small brush (it almost looks like an eyebrow spoolie!) or spatula to swab the cervix and collect cells. This might also feel uncomfortable but should not be too painful. 

That’s it! The whole process should only take around 15 minutes. The healthcare provider will follow up with any results and information after the appointment. 

It may be a little nerve-wracking to have someone examining down there, but Pap smears are completely routine tests. Healthcare providers perform these exams all the time and they are not judging you. It’s important to go to a provider that you trust, and never be afraid to ask questions or have them explain what they’re doing step by step! Sometimes the more information you have can alleviate any worry, so it’s worth speaking up.

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