One sure way to get a group of women shuddering is to casually ask, “Who has recently had a Pap smear?” It’s certainly *not* one of the most enjoyable parts of having a vagina. In fact, it’s downright unpleasant at times — Paper sticking to your butt, bright lights, small talk with your (hopefully friendly) gyno while they peer between your legs, and the classic “this will feel a little cold”.... yeesh. But, a Pap test is an important part of your cervical health. Did you know, cervical cancer was the most common cause of cancer deaths of women in the US in the 1930s? But deaths dropped after the introduction of the low-cost Pap test, developed by a Dr. George Papanicolaou (yup, *that* Dr. Pap!)?
What happens during a Pap test?
Ever wondered what actually happens during your Pap smear? (Or maybe tried not to think about it too hard?) Well, your doctor or nurse is actually taking a small sample of cells from your cervix. They are testing them for any abnormal cells, which could be caused by HPV. Also, just FYI, Pap smears don’t test for STDs, but while you’re there with your legs in the stirrups, why not ask your doctor to test you for STDs too! Ahhh, nothing feels better than taking care of your sexual health (except, you know, sex).
Just to be clear, a Pap test doesn’t test for HPV itself, just for cell changes that could be caused by HPV. These cell changes could lead to cervical cancer (sooo, we wanna know if they’re there!). Because HPV is so common— actually *the most* common STD in the US (that usually goes away on its own, btw)—people aren’t often tested for HPV.
Do you need to have a Pap test?
Yup. According to Planned Parenthood, if you’re over 21 you should start getting regular Pap tests, but the frequency varies depending on your age, medical history, and the results of your last tests.
If you’re 21 - 29 years old, get a Pap test every 3 years. If you’re 30 - 65, PP recommends you get a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) once every 5 years, or just a Pap test or HPV test every 3 years. (BTW an HPV test is similar to a Pap test and can often be done at the same time).
If you’ve had problems with your cervix before, you might need to get tested more often. There is still some discussion in the medical community about whether the co-test or Pap test is the most effective screening, and some concerns that setting a screening at 5-year intervals may mean that women are failing to follow up with other gynecological check ups. So, definitely have a chat with your own doctor about what option is best for you!
What if you have an abnormal Pap test?
First thing’s first, don’t panic! It’s pretty common to have unclear or abnormal Pap smear results… so don’t go Googling “cancer” as soon as you hear a voicemail from your doctor’s office. But what does it *mean*??
Ok, so an “unclear” test means that your cervical cells look like there’s something out of the ordinary going on, and it may not be clear because of HPV, or something else entirely. An abnormal Pap smear result means that there are abnormal cells on your cervix, but again, that could be something minor. The more serious cell changes are called “precancerous” because they *aren’t* cancerous yet but could develop cancer over time. I know anything with the word “cancer” in it sounds really, really scary, but, again, the reason that we do these tests it to catch things early! Yay science.
So.. if you do get the call, you might need to go back into your doctor for some more tests. If your doctor thinks there might be something serious going on, you might do a colposcopy, which is a cervical cancer test, and if it comes up positive, you can talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Basically, Pap tests are a great tool in our preventative health toolbox, and you should make sure you’re getting yours on time (even if they really *ouch* suck!)
Now that we've dished, tell us how you feel about Pap smears — scary? exciting? weird? Sound off in the comments below!