Someone waiting to get a pap test.

The Importance of Pap Tests

Why Are Pap Tests Important?

Routine medical screenings are helpful in detecting abnormalities at the earliest stage. One important test for women is a Pap test. What is a Pap test? Continue reading below to determine what the test is, why you should have one and how often it should be performed.

What is a Pap Test?

It is a screening for cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower section of the uterus and opens into the vagina. A Pap test involves taking a small sample of cells from the cervix to check for any abnormalities that may indicate cancer or precancerous cells.

Why is a Pap Test Important?

This test is vital for women to check for cervical cancer or abnormal cells that have the potential to turn into cancer. Although any woman can develop cervical cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it most often occurs in women over 30. Cervical cancer is also most commonly caused by some types of human papillomavirus, according to the CDC.

Cervical cancer has a high cure rate when it is diagnosed early. When cervical cancer is diagnosed early, it has usually not spread beyond the cervix or uterus. According to the American Cancer Society, localized cervical cancer has a 92% survival rate.

This test is so crucial because it can detect abnormal cells even before cancer is present. Treating abnormal cells can prevent cancer from developing. In addition, if cancer is present, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the prognosis.

How is a Pap Test Performed?

A Pap test is performed by a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant and involves the following steps:

  • During the test, your healthcare provider will ask you to lay back on the exam table, placing your feet in the stirrups.
  • Your healthcare provider will insert a speculum into the vagina to access the cervix.
  • The doctor then uses a soft brush to scrape a small sample of tissue or cells from the outside of the cervix.

The test is a separate procedure from a pelvic exam, but the two procedures are often done at the same doctor’s appointment.

After the cells are collected, they are sent to a lab for testing. The test results are often available within a few weeks. The results are sent to your doctor and a copy may also be sent to you. Your healthcare provider will call you with the results.

The test should only take a few minutes. Although you may feel slight pressure when the speculum is inserted, the test is not painful.

How Often Should You Get a Pap Test?

The frequency of Pap tests depends on the following factors:

  • Age
  • Medical history
  • HIV status

Most women between ages 21 and 65 should have regular Pap tests even if they are not sexually active or have not gone through menopause.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health recommends the following Pap test schedule:

  • The recommendation for women between 21 to 29 years old is a test every three years
  • Females between the age of 30 to 65 should undergo a Pap screen every three years
  • An HPV test every five years
  • A Pap test and HPV test together every five year

Women over the age of 65 may need a Pap test if they have never been tested or have not had a test after the age of 60. Women who have had a hysterectomy and have had their cervix removed do not need to have a Pap test.

Keep in mind, the recommendations above are general guidelines. It is essential to follow your doctor’s suggestion for the frequency of your test.

The Meaning Behind Pap Test Results

Here are the different types of Pap test results and the meanings behind them.

Normal Results

If you have normal results, it means that no abnormal cells were found in the cervix. The results may be called negative. It means you are negative for any type of cancer or precancerous cells. If your Pap test is normal, you can follow your regular schedule for your next test.

Abnormal Results

Abnormal test results mean some cells were found in the cervix that were not normal. There are different levels of abnormal cells and these include:

  • Atypical
  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe dysplasia
  • Carcinoma in situ

Mild to moderate abnormal cells may only require you to have another Pap test in six months to a year to keep an eye on things. In other cases, if more significant abnormal cells were found, your doctor may recommend a procedure called a colposcopy to take a closer look at the cervix and abnormal cells.

Getting to Know More About Pap Tests

A Pap test is a quick screening that can help diagnose cervical cancer early. It can be lifesaving, but some women are nervous about having the test.

If you are apprehensive about having a Pap test, there are some resources that may help. Learning more about the procedure may help you become more comfortable with the test. Visit Planned Parenthood or The Office of Women’s Health. It is also useful to talk with your doctor about your concerns.

Article Resources