What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear or Pap test is a diagnostic test that uses a sample of cells taken from the cervix, the uterine opening, to look for abnormal changes that could indicate the presence of cancer or other medical issues. Pap tests are performed during a routine pelvic exam.
What happens during a Pap test?
A Pap test is conducted during a pelvic exam with the patient on her back. A lubricated instrument called a speculum is used to gently widen the vaginal canal so the cervix can be accessed. Next, a long-handled swab is swiped across the vagina and used to remove a few cells from the cervix and the surrounding area. Once the sample is extracted, it will be evaluated under a microscope.
What does an abnormal Pap test result mean?
An abnormal Pap test can indicate the presence of cancer or an increased risk of cancer, but more commonly, it can indicate non-cancerous issues like yeast infections, hormonal fluctuations, or infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Most HPV infections clear up on their own, but some can cause genital warts. If the results of a Pap smear are abnormal, a second Pap test may be ordered, or a different diagnostic exam called a colposcopy may be performed. A colposcopy uses a lighted magnifying lens and a special solution to view the cervix and the surrounding tissues so small tissue samples (biopsies) can be taken for additional evaluation in a lab. Other diagnostic tests may also be ordered.
How often should I have a Pap test?
Most women should have a Pap smear performed every three years beginning at age 21. Once a woman reaches her mid-60s, she may not need to have Pap tests as often. Women with risk factors for cervical or uterine cancer may need to have Pap tests performed more frequently.
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