Most of us have heard the term "Pap smear" and know that we should be getting them, but beyond that, what constitutes a Pap, why we need to get them, and for some women, what happens when you get a Pap smear remains vague and unclear. However, to make the best of our health, we should know the details, and there are a number of interesting things every woman should know about Pap smears. The more you know about what the test is, why it's important, and how often you should be getting one, the better choices you can make about your body.
"Pap tests are important because they allow us to detect abnormalities before they turn into cancer," Dr. Christine Greves, a certified obstetrician and gynecologist at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells Bustle. "Basically, we sample cells from the cervix to evaluate whether they are normal, pre-cancerous, or cancerous."
Most women aren't fully aware of what getting a Pap smear means, so if you're wondering why your OB/GYN may routinely give you this exam, you're not alone. Whether you're due for one soon, you've never had one, or you're just plain lost on what happens when you get one, you'll want to know these 11 interesting things every woman needs to know about Pap smears.
1. A Pap Smear Only Screens For Cervical Cancer, Not Ovarian Cancer
"Pap smears are only checking for cervical cancer and sometimes can detect a uterine cancer that is coming down into the cervix," tells Bustle. "However, they say nothing about ovarian cancer." Shahin Ghadir, M.D., F.A.C.O.G. tells Bustle. A Pap smear also does not mean you are getting tested for STIs — that will require a separate test where your doctor will either take blood or a urine sample. To test for ovarian cancer, most OB/GYNs will look for size, shape, and consistency of the uterus and ovaries during a pelvic exam.
2. A Pap Smear Is Not The Same As A Pelvic Exam
Going into a gynecologist appointment doesn't mean you automatically are getting a pap smear. "Some women think that they've had a Pap test just because they had a pelvic exam, or a speculum exam," gynecologist Dr. Caryn St. Clair tells Bustle. The Pap test is collected with a little brush that is swept across the outer and inner cervix. It's important to ask your doctor whether or not you're getting a Pap test that day and how you will be notified with your results."
3. You Still Need A Pap Smear Even After You've Had Kids
Having children does not necessarily mean you are exempt from certain routine exams. "Women who are done having children sometimes believe that they do not need exams and Pap tests anymore," says St. Clair. "This is false. As long as you have a cervix, you need to be screened regularly for cervical cancer with the Pap test."
4. You Don't Need To Get Groomed For One
There's no need for special preparation when it comes time for your appointment. "When you have an upcoming appointment with your doctor that will include a pelvic exam and possibly a Pap test, just take a normal shower — no need for douching, waxing, etc.," says St. Clair. "Pubic hair is normal, and we will not be upset that you ran out of time for [grooming]."
5. Don't Get A Pap Smear On Your Period
Although you don't have to worry about grooming, you should avoid a few things before going to get your Pap. "Try to avoid sex, douching, tampon use, and being on your period a day or two before your Pap in order to avoid obscuring results," Dr. Angela Jones, Astroglide’s resident sexual health advisor, tells Bustle. Doctors say the best time to schedule your Pap smear is 10 to 20 days after the first day of your period.
6. They Only Take A Few Minutes
It is a common misconception that Pap smears take a long time to perform. "Women complain that they don’t have time to go to their physician, but Pap smears take all of about five to 10 minutes to perform," gynecologist Tami Prince, M.D tells Bustle. "The biggest time spent is in counseling patients and ensuring that their needs are addressed."
7. Pap Smears Are Considered "Preventative Care" By Insurers
When the Affordable Care Act was introduced, the ability to get a Pap test and an HPV test became easier. "The Pap and HPV test is considered preventative care," Melissa Randolph, BS, SCT (ASCP), Supervisor of Cytopathology at IU Health, tells Bustle. "Insurance is required to cover the test at no cost to the patient. In addition, the CDC sponsors a 'National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program' for low-income, uninsured and underinsured women in the United States." This helps women in these categories have access to breast and cervical cancer screenings with timely results.
8. Deaths From Cervical Cancer Have Decreased Since Pap Smears Were Invented
9. They Shouldn't Be Painful
You might dread getting one, but there's not much to be afraid of. "The biggest misconception is that Pap smears are painful," says Prince. "Pap smears are no more painful than intercourse. The key is to relax and take deep breaths as the speculum is entering the vagina. Clenching of the vaginal muscles while a speculum is in place will definitely cause pain."
10. HPV Is Very Common
Finding out your Pap is abnormal or you have human papilloma virus (HPV) might sound scary, but it is very common. "Between the ages of 15 and 49, three out of four Americans have or have had genital HPV," says Greves. "Only about one percent of sexually active Americans have visible genital warts at some point." In most cases, HPV goes away on it's own, but if you are diagnosed with HPV, it is important to keep up with routine Pap smears, because in few cases the virus may develop into cervical cancer.
11. You Don't Need One Every Year
If you are between the ages of 21 and 29, then a Pap smear every three years is recommended, says Greves. If you are over 30 years old and your last Pap was normal, then having a pap test every five years is what is recommended. However, you should still go yearly for an annual preventative exam. "As women, we have many different things to discuss, like our periods, how to prevent pregnancy, sex, pain, etc.," says Greves. Scheduling yearly appointments with your OB/GYN is the best way to stay on top of your health.
12. Getting HPV Does Not Mean Your Partner Was Unfaithful
You might be concerned if HPV shows up on your Pap smear and you're in a monogamous relationship, but this doesn't mean your partner necessarily cheated. "Genital HPV can come and go away (or lie latent as what we call it)," says Greves. "It can be in our bodies for weeks, months, or up to a lifetime without ever seeing signs of it being present. People can have it and not even know it. We do not have the ability to find out how long particular infection has been present." So if you are diagnosed with HPV, have an open discussion with your partner. They may want to get tested as well, and it might also be a good idea to speak about forms of protection to use during sex so that the virus does not spread.
13. An Abnormal Pap Smear Doesn't Necessarily Mean You're At Risk For Cervical Cancer
"There are multiple different reasons for an abnormal Pap smear, one of which is showing abnormal cells that could lead to an increased risk of cervical cancer," says Greves. "However other things, like inflammation or infections can cause abnormal pap smears as well." If your doctor tells you the results of your Pap smear are abnormal, do not be worried. They will follow up with details of what caused the abnormalities of the test, and will discuss the best way to proceed if necessary.
Although Pap smears can seem daunting, scheduling time for the exam when your doctor suggests it is a great way to remain vigilant about your health, and prevent any issues in the long run