One of the best medical technologies modern healthcare provides is a pap smear, a simple test that checks for changes in the cells of the cervix. Monitoring these changes and catching them early can prevent more serious problems from developing or worsening, but in order for doctors to get ahead of problems, you need to have regular pap smears.
There are many misconceptions surrounding pap smears, or cervical screening. Sadly, some of these misconceptions lead to many women avoiding this procedure that is absolutely vital to good gynaecological health.
Armed with the right information you can help improve your gynaecological health by keeping to the best pap smear schedule for you.
Here is everything you need to know about pap smears.
Pap smears are simple tests where a speculum – a hollow cylinder similar to a duck beak – is inserted into the vagina and opened to dilate the vagina for easier inspection. A sample from the cervix is taken using a brush and the collected cells are tested.
Does it hurt?
Pap smears can be mildly uncomfortable for some women and slightly painful for a tiny minority, however for the vast majority, it’s no worse than a loud sneeze.
Pap smears are recommended every two years as part of the screening programme for cervical cancer. They may be required more frequently if there are abnormal cells found or you have abnormal bleeding.
Pap smears are recommended for women aged 18 and older or within 2 years of becoming sexually active, and are usually discontinued at age 70. It may be performed at any age if there is abnormal bleeding.
What they test for
A pap smear may detect cancer, but its aim is to check for abnormal cells which are a result of HPV (human papillomavirus) infection of the cervix before these develop into cancer. The results of a smear can determine if any further medical attention is needed.
Pap smears are not used to detect sexually transmitted infections (STIs). HPV is only detectable because it can alter cervical cells. Doing an extra test at the time of the smear (Thin Prep) may be useful to detect STIs (such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea) and provide a more reliable result for the Pap smear. Pap smears are not an alternative to sexual health screening and vice versa.
HPV is very common and is usually acquired within 2 years of commencing sexual activity. Most women’s immune systems will eradicate it within 6-12 months of contracting it.
Not all check-ups include pap smears
Most routine examinations and check-ups with your GP will not include a pap smear. If you’re not sure if you’ve had one, request one. and ensure you have another within two years.
The five-minute lifesaver
Abnormal cells that develop into cervical cancer are mostly asymptomatic. Women concerned about the procedure, or unaware of what it actually entails, often avoid these vital check-ups. That can cause problems down the road as potentially harmful cells aren’t caught early enough. It takes five minutes to have a pap smear and if the results are abnormal, chances are that whatever it is can be dealt with quickly and effectively.
What does an abnormal pap smear result mean?
It is natural to feel anxious if your pap smear result is abnormal. In most cases however, abnormal pap smear results do not result in cancer – in fact less than one per cent of abnormalities become cancerous. The majority of abnormal results simply require further tests to monitor changes, most of which will resolve themselves without intervention.
Dos and don’ts
Do get a pap smear – that’s the most important thing.
Once your pap smear is booked you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. If you go when you are menstruating, or haven’t waited for at least five days after your period has stopped, then the results will likely be inconclusive and you’ll need to go again.
Also, you should avoid unprotected sex, using tampons, douches, vaginal lubricants, creams, suppositories or powder for at least 48 hours before your test. This will ensure your sample is uncontaminated.
This information should cover everything you need to know about pap smears, but if you have any questions or need further information please do not hesitate to call us on 07 3088 9005. All three gynaecologists at Northside Gynaecology, Dr Archna Saraswat, Dr Liana Tanda and Dr Caroline Wewengkang, are specialists in performing this vital procedure. We encourage you to book your pap smear with us and keep on top of any changes to your cervical cells.