The Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. Cells scraped from the opening of the cervix are examined under a microscope. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.
You lie on a table and place your feet in stirrups. The doctor or nurse gently places an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to open it slightly. This allows the doctor or nurse to see inside the vagina and cervix.
Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area. The sample of cells is sent to a lab for examination.
Tell your doctor or nurse about all the medicines you are taking. Some birth control pills that contain estrogen or progestin may interfere with test results.
Also tell your doctor or nurse if you:
Do not do the following for 24 hours before the test:
Avoid scheduling your Pap smear while you have your period (are menstruating). Blood may make the Pap smear results less accurate. If you are having unexpected bleeding, do not cancel your exam. Your doctor will determine if the Pap smear can still be done.
Empty your bladder just before the test.
A Pap smear may cause some discomfort, similar to menstrual cramps. You may also feel some pressure during the exam.
You may bleed a little bit after the test.
The Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers can be detected early if a woman has routine Pap smears.
Screening should start at age 21. After the first test:
After age 65 to 70: Most women can stop having Pap smears as long as they have had three negative tests within the past 10 years.
You may not need to have a Pap smear if you have had a total hysterectomy (uterus and cervix removed) and have not had an abnormal Pap smear, cervical cancer, or other pelvic cancer. Discuss this with your doctor.
A normal result means there are no abnormal cells present.
Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.
Abnormal results are grouped as follows:
ASCUS or AGUS
LSIL (low-grade dysplasia) or HSIL (high-grade dysplasia):
Carcinoma in situ (CIS):
Atypical squamous cells (ASC):
Atypical glandular cells (AGC):
When a Pap smear shows abnormal changes, further testing or follow-up is needed. The next step depends on the results of the Pap smear, your previous history of Pap smears, and risk factors you may have for cervical cancer.
Follow-up testing may include:
For minor cell changes, doctors usually recommend having another Pap smear in 6 to 12 months.
The Pap smear test is not 100% accurate. Cervical cancer may be missed in a small number of cases. Most of the time, cervical cancer develops very slowly and follow-up Pap smears should identify changes in time for treatment.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Practice Bulletin No. 99: Management of abnormal cervical cytology and histology. Obstet Gynecol. 2008;112:1419-1444.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Practice Bulletin No. 109: Cervical cytology screening.Obstet Gynecol. 2009;114:1409-1420.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Committee Opinion No. 463: Cervical cancer in adolescents: screening, evaluation, and management. Obstet Gynecol. 2010;116:469-472.
Noller KL. Intraepithelial neoplasia of the lower genital tract (cervix, vulva): etiology, screening, diagnostic techniques, management. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2012:chap 28.
Saslow D, Solomon D, Lawson HW, et al. American Cancer Society, American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and American Society for Clinical Pathology screening guidelines for the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(3):147-72.