Papanicolaou (Pap) Smear Test

What is a Papanicolaou (Pap) smear test?

A Pap smear involves taking cells at the neck of the womb, located at the end of the vagina. These cells can be abnormal without symptoms in patients having precancer of the cervix, and this method allows prevention of cervical cancer by detecting precancerous changes.

The Pap smear is usually done in conjunction with a pelvic exam.

A Pap smear test is recommended once every 3 years for women above the age of 25 – 29.

For women over the age of 30, a HPV test is also recommended once every 5 years. Together, these test help in the early detection of cervical cancer.

Why do you need a Pap smear?

A Pap smear test is done to look for changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer.

Early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment of pre-cancers and cancer.

If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend more-frequent Pap smears, regardless of age. These risk factors include:

  • A diagnosis of cervical cancer or a Pap smear that showed precancerous cells
  • A history of smoking
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) (a synthetic form of oestrogen) before birth
  • HIV infection
  • Weakened immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic corticosteroid use

Cervical cancers almost always develop in patients who have had sexual contact. Hence, patients who have never had sex before need not go for Pap smears.

However, if there are any gynaecological symptoms such as abnormal bleeding or discharge, they should still consult a gynaecologist.

What are the risks and complications of a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a safe way to screen for cervical cancer, but it cannot detect cancer 100% of the time.

It is possible to get false-negative results, which means the test indicates no abnormality, even though there are abnormal cells.

A false-negative result can be due to:

  • An inadequate collection of cells
  • A small number of abnormal cells
  • Blood or inflammatory cells obscuring the abnormal cells

Even though abnormal cells can go undetected, time is on your side because cervical cancer takes several years to develop. This is why regular tests are important to pick up any changes. If one test does not detect the abnormal cells, the next test most likely will.

This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.

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