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Pap Smears: What Are They, What They Check For & When To Start Getting Them

Pap proedure

Pap Smears: Here's the Deal

What is a Pap Smear?

A Pap Smear, sometimes also known as a "Pap Test" or "Pap", is a screening test for cervical cancer in people with a cervix. The cervix is found at the lower, narrow end of the uterus. A Pap Smear collects cells from the cervix, in order to screen those cells for changes. These changes can be benign in nature, but can aslo be precancerous or cancerous. That is why the Pap Smear is meant to act as a screening for detecting and preventing progession of cervical cancer.

Why is it Called a Pap Smear?

The "Pap Smear" is really a nickname of sorts for the full tests name, "Papanicolaou Test". This name comes from the tests inventor, George Nicholas Papanicolaou, who revolutionized the early detection of cervical cancer. The word "Smear" comes from the way that this test used to be performed; by smearing the cells on a surface to evaluate them for precancerous changes. The Pap Smear samples are evaluated differently now, but its name has stuck, as the process of cervical cell collection and the rationale behind performing the test is the same.

What Does a Pap Smear Check For?

As above, the Pap checks for changes in the cervical cells that can indicate precancerous or cancerous changes. Paps also evaluate specifically for a virus called HPV or Human Papilloma Virus. It checks for HPV as certain kinds of HPV have been linked to elevated risk for the development of cervical cancers. Knowing whether or not HPV is present, can help your practitioner determine how often you may need a Pap based on your risk for development of cervical cancer. This is also determined based on your age, family history, and other risk factors. In addition, a Pap may check for certain sexually transmitted infections, such as, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Trichomonas. Some Pap tests also evaluate for infections such as Yeast and Bacterial Vaginosis.

Why Do I Need a Pap Smear?

As above, the Pap Smear helps to determined if you are at elevated risk for cervical cancer, and aims to ensure the cells on your cervix are not demonstrating any cancerous changes. In addtion, as also mentioned above, a Pap Smear can test you directly for other vaginal infections, which may need critical treatment such as sexually transmitted infections. Sometimes theses infections can be somewhat assymptomatic, and therefore you may not know a problem exists before it is identifed on your Pap. Also, a Pap can help your practitioner determine if you have any other type of vaginal infection such as Bacterial Vaginosis or Yeast, in order to treat you appropriately and resolve any symptoms you may be experiencing due to these infections. 

When Should I Start Getting a Pap Smear?

For most people with a cervix, Paps do not need to begin until the age of 21. There are of course exceptions which may require earlier testing, including but not limited to, people with compromised immune systems, because of HIV, long-term steroid use or organ transplants. It is no longer recommended to begin Pap tests with the initiation of sexually activity, regardless of age. After the age of 21 your practitioner may recommended yearly or annual Paps, but it is also possible that you only need screening every 3 years. This is often determined based on your results of your Pap and other contributing factors. It is critical to discuss this with your practitioner and understand the risks and benefits of screening intervals. A full annual visit with a gynecological healthcare provider is still necesarry and important regardless of whether you are "due" for a Pap.

What Do My Results from My Pap Smear Mean?

It is critically important to discuss the results of your Pap with your practitioner. At Holistic OBGYN we will always discuss your results in full with you a follow-up appointment approximately 3 weeks after we perform your Pap. There are many outcomes of a Pap, many of which are benign and will require no follow-up, and some which are more serious and will require further testing. We highly recommend discussing these results with one of our practitioners and not simply researching your results online. Online forums and other non-medically regulated sites may give you false information that can scare or traumatize you. Whatever the result, the practitioners at Holistic OBGYN will be happy to explain results to you in full detail, give recommendations for follow-up, treatment if indicated, and discuss options for all modalities of your care. 

To make an appointment to schedule your annual visit or Pap test, please refer to the "Contact Us" section of the website. For more information regarding HPV, please see the blog post about HPV on our website titled, "HPV: Human Papilloma Virus". We hope this information was helpful and look forward to seeing, or speaking to you soon!


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