Pap Smear (Cervical Smear)
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A Pap smear is a medical exam used to determine if a woman has cervical cancer. A Pap smear is also called a Pap test. It’s performed by a healthcare provider, usually as part of a general pelvic exam. During a Pap test, a healthcare provider collects cells from your cervix (located at the bottom of your uterus). These cells are then analyzed by a lab. The lab looks for anything unusual about the cells.
Why should I have a Pap smear?
Pap smears are an important part of women’s health. They are your best method for catching cancer early. In fact, a Pap smear can even detect pre-cancerous changes to your cells. If you do have these changes, your healthcare provider can treat what’s causing them. Doing so may prevent the cancer from developing
Path to improved health
When should I begin having Pap smears?
Certain things put you at higher or lower risk for cervical cancer. Your healthcare provider will consider these when recommending when you should have your first Pap test and how often you should have a Pap test. Below are general guidelines. It is recommended you consult with your health care provider to determine what screening is right for you, based on your history.
The Nova Scotia Cervical Screening Practice Guidelines recommend:
- Women who have been sexually active should start having a Pap test at the age of 25. Once women begin having Pap tests, they should have them every 3 years.
- Women who become sexually active for the first time after the age of 25 should have a Pap test within three years of the time that they became sexually active.
- Women who have never been sexually active do not need to have Pap tests until such time as they become sexually active.
- If the Pap test results are normal (negative or clear) women should continue to have Pap tests every three years.
- Screening may be discontinued after the age of 70 ONLY if there is an adequate negative screening history in the previous ten years (i.e. three or more negative tests).
Prince Edward Island
HPV (human papillomavirus) testing has replaced Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer on PEI. For more information, see https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/information/health-pei/hpv-screening-and-cervical-cancer-prevention
How often should I have a Pap smear?
In general, women of average risk and previous Pap tests have been normal should have a regular Pap test every three years. Your healthcare provider with discuss how often you should have one based on your personal history and risk factors.
Is there anything I should do to get ready for my Pap smear?
Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about all medicines you’re taking. Some birth control medicines can alter the test results.
There are some things you should avoid before your Pap smear. For 24 hours before your Pap smear, do not:
- Have sex.
- Use contraceptive creams.
- Use vaginal creams.
- Use tampons.
- Use vaginal deodorants.
You also shouldn’t have a Pap smear during your menstrual period. Any or all of these things could make abnormal cells harder to identify.
What will my healthcare provider do during the Pap smear?
Your healthcare provider will insert a speculum into your vagina. A speculum is a tool that holds the vagina open so that the healthcare provider can examine your cervix. The speculum does that by spreading the vaginal walls apart. Then your healthcare provider will collect cells from your cervix using a long cotton swab or small soft brush.
Will it hurt?
The exam may make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s not usually painful. When your healthcare provider collects the cells from your cervix, you may feel slight pressure or a quick pinch. The entire exam takes only a few minutes.
How will I feel afterward?
You should feel completely normal after your Pap smear. But you may have some spotting (a small amount of bleeding) for a short time.
Things to consider
If you are notified that your Pap smear is abnormal, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. There are many reasons that your Pap smear results may be flagged as abnormal. Most of the time, an abnormal result is caused by an infection of your cervix. Or it could be a poor sample.
Your healthcare provider may perform another Pap smear right away. Or they may have you wait several months before doing another Pap smear. In these cases, they could be waiting for the abnormal cells to clear themselves.
If your results are still abnormal or not conclusive (certain), your healthcare provider may perform a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a procedure where your healthcare provider will use a small microscope to look at your cervix. They also may remove a piece of tissue during this exam. This is called a biopsy. The tissue will be examined in a lab to determine if cancerous cells are present.
If your healthcare provider finds cancer, they will discuss treatment options with you. These will depend on the stage of cancer you have. Cervical cancer is treatable—and curable—if caught in the early stages.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Screening Guidelines – Nova Scotia