Most Common Pap Smears Questions and Answers

What is a Pap Smear?
Pap smears are minimally invasive, painless ways to check for abnormal cervical cells. Your doctor or OB/GYN will use a cotton swab (much like a Q-tip with a long handle) to brush a few sample cells from your cervix. The cells are smeared onto a glass slide and examined under a microscope by a trained medical technician. If the cells are abnormal, further testing is ordered.

Why Get a Pap Smear?
Pap smears are essential tools used as the first line of detection of cervical cancer.

How Significant is Cervical Cancer?
Thirteen thousand women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. About 3,000 women die from cervical cancer every year. Early detection and treatment is key to overcoming this form of cancer.

What is HPV?
HPV (human papillomavirus) is a group of over 40 viruses that cause a variety of illnesses, from genital warts to other cervical and vaginal infections. A few strains of HPV can cause changes in the cervix that can result in cervical cancer. While not everyone who develops an HPV infection will get cervical cancer, HPV is the most common precursor for cervical cancer.

Is There Any Way to Prevent Contracting HPV?
There are several ways to reduce your risk for contracting HPV. First of all, you should limit your number of sexual partners and use condoms if your relationship is not monogamous. Secondly, you should consider getting the HPV vaccine. Check with your doctor for details on this series of vaccinations.

How Long Does a Pap Smear Take?
A pap smear only takes a couple of minutes. It can be done in your doctor's office or at a clinic.

Who Should Get a Pap Smear?
You should start getting pap smears if:

  • You are 21 years old or older
  • You have been sexually active for three years, no matter what your age
  • You have been sexually active with more than one partner

How Often Should You Get a Pap Smear?
You should get a pap smear:

  • Every year if you are aged 21 to 30 years old
  • Every two to three years if you are over 30 and have had at least three consecutive normal pap smears and are active with only one sexual partner
  • Every year if you are over 30 and have had any abnormal pap smears or are sexually active with more than one partner (not in a monogamous relationship)
  • You may ask your doctor if you can stop getting pap smears if you are over 65 and have never had an abnormal pap smear

What Does it Mean if Your Pap Smear Results Came Back as Abnormal?
If you've just received notification that you had an abnormal pap smear, it means you should get additional testing to make sure you do not have an HPV infection or cervical cancer. Many tests come back with false positives, meaning the second pap smear will come back saying your cervical cells are normal. This is because medical technicians are trained to err on the side of caution when reading pap smear slides in order to catch any cases of HPV or cervical cancer so early treatment can be initiated as soon as possible. If your pap smear comes back abnormal, hurry to get a follow up test or exam done, but do not panic. Most abnormal pap smears turn out to be easily treatable cervical or vaginal infections and not cervical cancer.

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Learning that your pap smear results are abnormal isn't necessarily reason to panic, so don't jump to the conclusion that you have cervical cancer. Around half of abnormal results point to minor cervical conditions that aren't cause for worry, but do follow up with your doctor to determine a plan for an exact diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you receive a notice saying you have abnormal pap smear results, do not panic. This does not necessarily mean you have cervical cancer.

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