What Can A Pap Smear Test Detect & How Often Do You Need One?
A Pap smear is used to study the cells located in your cervix, and is considered the best way to detect precancerous conditions and small tumors. When caught early on, cervical cancer is curable, which is why regular Pap smears are so important. Pap tests can also identify the presence of certain vaginal or uterine infections, like trichomonas infections.
During the Pap smear a swab of cells is collected from your cervix. These cells are then sent off to a lab where a pathologist and/or a cytotechnologist examine the samples under a microscope. As long as the test is viable they will be able to determine if cells are abnormal or normal. Abnormal cells may indicate cancerous or precancerous conditions.
What Happens During A Pap Smear?
A Pap smear is conducted during your regular pelvic exam. A device known as a speculum is used to widen the vaginal opening so that it is easier for your doctor to access your cervix. Your cervix is located at the lower portion of your uterus. A plastic spatula and a small brush are used to quickly scrap cells from the cervix. The process should not be painful. It may be uncomfortable and you may feel some pressure, but you should not be in pain if the exam is conducted properly. After your cells are collected they are placed in a solution and sent off to the lab for further testing.
Do Pap Smears Detect STDs?
Cervical cancer is linked with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US. Almost every case of cervical cancer is related to persistent infections caused by strains of human papillomavirus. An HPV test may be given to women that have abnormal Pap smear results. Other than HPV, a pap smear does not detect other types of sexually transmitted diseases.
While Pap tests can sometimes show signs of infection, it is not considered the go-to test for STDs. Aside from HPV, other tests are used to determine the presence of STDs. A doctor may collect additional samples of fluid from around the cervix at the time of your pap smear in order to detect Gonorrhea or Chlamydia. Gonorrhea and Chlamydia can also be detected through a urine test. A blood test is used to detect HIV, Hepatitis B and syphilis.
Normal Vs. Abnormal Pap Test Results
Your Pap test results will came back normal or abnormal. A normal Pap test indicates that all of the cells within your cervix look normal and healthy. An abnormal Pap test indicates the presence of abnormal cells, but that does not automatically mean you have cancerous cells in your body.
There are a number of reasons abnormal cells are detected, aside from the presence of HPV and cancer. Other leading causes of abnormal Pap test results include inflammation, changes to your menstrual cycle and an underlying infection.
Secondary Pap Tests & Exams
In some cases, a second Pap test is necessary in order to determine the cause of abnormal results. It’s also possible for an inadequate collection of cells to be collected during your initial exam, which will prompt the need for a second test.
A doctor may need to examine your cervix and vagina with a colposcopy, a special type of microscope. This device is used to look inside of the vagina to see any potential problems or growths that would otherwise remain out of sight to the naked eye. If your doctor identifies anything abnormal, a biopsy (or sample tissues) may be taken from the area in order to run additional testing.
Menopause causes a decrease in estrogen, which can impact test results. Menopausal women are sometimes advised to take estrogen before undergoing a second Pap smear.
How Often Do You Need A Pap Smear?
Women should not get a Pap test until they are 21-years-old.
Between 21 and 30 years of age, women should get a Pap smear once every 3 years.
Women between 30 and 65 should get a Pap test once every 5 years.
Women 65 and older may no longer need Pap tests if they are considered low risk.
You are considered low risk if you have had 3 consecutive negative Pap tests or 2 consecutive negative HPV DNA tests during the last 10 years. At least one of these exams must have been completed within the last 5 years.
Some women require more frequent testing, including:
-If you are HIV positive.
-Your immune system is suppressed for any reason.
-You were exposed to DES while you were in the womb.
-You have been treated in the past for cervical cancer or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia.
-You have multiple sexual partners.
-You’re experiencing symptoms such as irregular vaginal bleeding, discharge, and painful sores or itching.
How Long Does It Take To Get Your Results Back?
- Pap smear test results generally take around 1 week to get back from the lab.
Preparing For Your Pap Smear
- 48 hours prior to your Pap test, avoid vaginal intercourse, douching, and the use of any vaginal creams.