For those of us that have made a trip to the gynecologist once knows of the pap smear, the main attraction at your appointment. We all know how awkward and uncomfortable it can be but it is a very important action to take to better your vaginal health. With changes to the pap smear guidelines in recent years, you may be confused about how often you should get a pap smear. The truth is that it varies based on age, health status, and other factors. This article looks at some common questions surrounding pap smears and gives you an idea of the frequency which may be best for you. Of course, you should discuss the specifics with your doctor.
What Is A Pap Smear?
The Pap Smear is a test which involves the collection of cells from your cervix. It can detect changes in your cervical cells which suggest the presence of cancer or the risk of developing cancer.
Why You Should Have a Pap Smear
If your doctor can identify abnormal cells early, they may be able to prevent the development of cancer. Since cervical cancer is a progressive disease, it can be cured if it is detected early.
What Pap Smears Don’t Do
Many women think Pap smears test for sexually transmitted diseases or other types of cancers, but this isn’t the case.
When Should I Get My First Pap Smear?
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the US Preventative Services Task Force recommend that women start getting Pap smears at the age of 21. Women were previously advised to get the test done annually. However, this is now thought to be unnecessary for most women.
Why Pap Smears Can Be Less Frequent
The tests have improved over the years and cervical cancer takes a long time to develop. Women are now advised to get one every three years until the age of 65 as long as their results are normal.
When More Frequent Pap Smears Are Necessary
If your test results are abnormal, your doctor is likely to recommend more frequent testing for a while. You will also need more frequent screening if you are HIV+, you have a history of cervical cancer, your immune system is weak or you were exposed to diethylstilbestrol before birth.
The Importance of the HPV Test
Women who are 30 and over should be tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV) when they get their Pap smear. HPV causes cervical cancer. Gynecologists don’t test younger women for the virus because 80 percent of sexually active women have it. However, it usually clears up during their 30s.
How Often Should You Have This Test?
If you test negative for HPV, you may be able to extend the time between Pap smears to five years. You will still need to have a regular gynecological exam each year. If you test positive for HPV or you have precancerous cells on your cervix, you will need to be tested more frequently.
For How Long Should You Get Pap Smears?
Unless you have had a hysterectomy, you should continue to have Pap smears until age 65. At this point, if you had two normal screenings in the past decade and no major pre-cancerous cells in the past two decades, you can stop getting tests.
What Happens If I’ve Had a Hysterectomy?
In some cases, if you had a total hysterectomy, Pap smears can be discontinued. However, if the surgery was performed because of uterine cancers, you may have to continue getting screenings. The same applies if you have a compromised immune system.
What You Should Do in These Circumstances
Your doctor will determine how frequently you should have Pap smears if you are considered to be at risk.
What Symptoms Should I Look Out for Between Pap Smears?
If you have pre-cancerous cells in your cervix, you are unlikely to get symptoms. Usually, only a pelvic exam and Pap smear will detect their presence.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Abnormal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer. The bleeding may occur between regular menstrual periods or after sexual intercourse.
Another possible symptom is abnormal vaginal discharge.
Signs of Another Condition
Pain is not an early symptom of cervical cancer. This may indicate you have another condition so you should make sure you see your doctor.
Is the Pap Test Safe and Accurate?
The Pap smear is a safe test for cervical cancer, but it isn’t fool-proof. It can result in false-negative results. This means the test will show there are no abnormal cells in your cervix even though you have them.
What Causes a False-Negative Pap Smear Result?
The error may be due to the small number of abnormal cells or the presence of inflammatory or blood cells hiding the abnormal cells.
Why There is No Need to Worry
Even if abnormal cells go undetected, you should not suffer major harm as long as you get routine tests. Cervical cancer takes a long time to develop so if one test missed it, the next one is unlikely to do so.
How to Prepare for a Pap Smear
To help ensure your screening is effective you should:
Avoid Certain Activities and Products Before the Test
For two days before the test, avoid intercourse, douching, vaginal medicines or spermicidal products.
Try to Schedule Your Pap Smear for Two Weeks After the Start of Your Period
Your period changes the pH of your vagina and the presence of blood can make it difficult to get a clean sample of cells.
What to Expect During the Pap Smear
The test only takes a few minutes. You may have to undress completely or just from the waist down. You then lie down on your back with your knees bent and your heels in the stirrups.
What the Doctor Will Do During the Test
The gynecologist will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold the walls apart and then use a soft brush and spatula to take samples of the cells.
What Happens After the Pap Smear
After the exam has been completed, you can carry on with your day as usual. Your doctor will tell you when you can expect the results.
What Happens with the Samples
The doctor will transfer the cells samples onto a glass slide or into a container with a liquid which preserves the sample. They will then be taken to a lab for examination under a microscope.
Abnormal Test Results
If abnormal cells were discovered, it doesn’t automatically mean you have cervical cancer. It all depends on the type of cells which were discovered.
Pap Smears Showing Atypical Squamous Cells of Undetermined Significance (ASCUS)
It is normal for squamous cells to grow on the surface of a healthy cervix. In this case, they look slightly abnormal but they don’t clearly appear to be precancerous.
A Test Showing a Squamous Intraepithelial Lesion
This term means the cells may be precancerous. Low-grade changes mean the lesion is years away from becoming cancer while high-grade changes mean cancer may develop much sooner.
A Pap Smear Showing Atypical Glandular Cells
Glandular cells grow within your uterus and in the opening of the cervix and they produce mucus. Atypical glandular cells may look a little abnormal, but they are not clearly cancerous.
Test Results Showing Squamous Cell Cancer or Adenocarcinoma Cells
This result means it’s almost certain that you have cancer. Squamous cell cancer occurs in the flat surface cells of the vagina or cervix while adenocarcinoma refers to cancers in the glandular cells.
It is best when abnormal cells are detected early. That way, your doctor can do further testing and you can get any treatment you need. While this guide outlined the commonly accepted practises, you should speak to your doctor about what is best for you.