Whether you’ve had Pap smears or not, you may not think too much about them. But Pap smears are important since they’re the only way your doctor can identify changes in the cells on your cervix that may indicate you’re at risk for — or already have — cervical cancer. In the U.S. alone, more than 4,000 women a year die from cervical cancer, which is why doctors recommend getting a Pap smear every three years when you’re between the ages of 21 and 65.
At The Women's Center at Life Point Medical, in Clayton, Georgia, our team does Pap smears regularly. Here’s what you need to know about Pap smears, including how they detect cervical cancer, how to minimize your risk, and what to expect during your appointment.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most cases of cervical cancer and is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Because there are more than 100 different types of HPV, it’s also responsible for other kinds of conditions, including genital warts and warts on the hands or feet.
An HPV infection is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, so it’s considered highly contagious. When you use a condom, you can prevent most other types of sexually transmitted diseases, but condoms can’t fully protect against HPV.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 79 million women and men in the US — mostly in their teens or early 20s — are currently infected with HPV. Most of them don’t know it.
Pap smears look for abnormal changes to cells on your cervix that are caused by HPV. When your doctor administers a Pap smear test, they take a swab of cells from your cervix, which is the opening to your uterus. Next, they send the cells to a lab, which analyzes their composition. Within a week or two, the lab lets your doctor know whether your test results were positive (meaning cervical cells are abnormal, which requires further investigation) or negative (meaning cervical cells are normal).
When your Pap smear is positive, that doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer. A Pap smear detects cell changes caused by HPV rather than cervical cancer itself. So if your test is positive, we perform a few more tests and base our treatment recommendations on those results. Cervical cancer is curable when caught early.
If you’re between 21 and 65 or are at high risk for HPV, we recommend Pap smears every three years as part of your well-woman exams. Cervical cancer takes up to 10 years to develop, so a test every three years alerts your doctor to early changes.
A Pap smear doesn’t take long. While you lie down on the exam table with your feet in the stirrups, your doctor inserts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina and cervix. The speculum widens your cervix so your doctor can take a simple swab of your cells.
You may feel a slight pinching sensation when the speculum is inserted or when your doctor swabs your cervix. We always let you know what’s about to happen so you can relax during your test.
In between your Pap smears, you can minimize your risk of HPV infection by doing the following:
If you’re between the ages of 9 and 26, you may also be eligible for an HPV vaccine. To set up your Pap smear or well-woman exam, call us today or use the online form.