The Pap test, also called a Pap smear, checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens into the vagina (birth canal). The Pap test can tell if you have an infection, abnormal (unhealthy) cervical cells, or cervical cancer.
Why do I need a Pap test?
A Pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer. If caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can find infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer cells. Treatment can prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing.
Getting regular Pap tests is the best thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, regular Pap tests have led to a major decline in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths.
Do all women need Pap tests?
It is important for all women to have Pap tests, along with pelvic exams, as part of their routine health care. You need a Pap test if you are 21 years or older.
Women who have gone through menopause (when a woman’s periods stop) still need regular Pap tests. Women ages 65 and older can talk to their doctor about stopping after at least 3 normal Pap tests and no abnormal results in the last 10 years.
I had a hysterectomy. Do I still need Pap tests?
It depends on the type of hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) you had and your health history. Women who have had a hysterectomy should talk with their doctor about whether they need routine Pap tests.
Usually during a hysterectomy, the cervix is removed with the uterus. This is called a total hysterectomy. Women who have had a total hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer may not need regular Pap tests. Women who have had a total hysterectomy because of abnormal cells or cancer should be tested yearly for vaginal cancer until they have three normal test results. Women who have had only their uterus removed but still have a cervix need regular Pap tests. Even women who have had hysterectomies should see their doctors yearly for pelvic exams.
How can I reduce my chances of getting cervical cancer?
Aside from getting Pap tests, the best way to avoid cervical cancer is by steering clear of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a major cause of cervical cancer. HPV infection is also one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI). So, a woman boosts her chances of getting cervical cancer if she:
- Starts having sex before age 18
- Has many sex partners
- Has sex partners who have other sex partners
- Has or has had a STI
How do I prepare for a Pap test?
Many things can cause wrong test results by washing away or hiding abnormal cells of the cervix. So, doctors suggest that for 2 days before the test you avoid:
- Using tampons
- Using vaginal creams, suppositories, and medicines
- Using vaginal deodorant sprays or powders
- Having sex