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What Is a Pap Smear?

You Probably Hate Getting Pap Smears, but Here's Why You Shouldn't Miss Them

OK, so going to the doctor may not be the most exciting thing to add to your list of things to do, and you may find it to be somewhat scary at times. Well, we're here to tell you: you're not alone. As much as some of us may dread that walk into the doctor's office, it's important to know all of the doctor's appointments you need to have regularly and to understand that taking preventative measures are vital to our health.

One of the appointments we need to have regularly is a pap smear, also known as a pap test. A pap smear tests for cervical cancer in women, as well as any abnormal cells that may be indicative of cancer down the line, by swabbing a sample of cells from your cervix. That sample gets sent to a lab for review and the results should be given to your doctor a few days after your appointment.

A pap smear is conducted in your doctor's office and usually takes less than 20 minutes. You should remember not to have sex for at least 24 hours before the exam and you'll have to reschedule if your period starts in order to get the most accurate results.

If you've never had a pap smear, we're not going to lie — it's a bit uncomfortable (but that doesn't make it any less necessary). During the procedure, your doctor will have you lie on your back on the examination table with your knees elevated, legs spread, and your feet in stirrups. While in this position, your doctor will insert a tool called a speculum into your vagina in order to widen it so that they will be able to collect the cell sample from your cervix.

If you're 21 or older, you should be getting pap smears regularly. How often you need to get one depends on a couple different factors, including your age and health history. The Office on Women's Health, US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 29 should get a pap smear every three years, while women between the ages of 30 and 64 should get both a pap smear and HPV test every five years, or every three years if you're only getting a pap smear. Women over 65 should ask their doctors if they can stop having pap smears.

However, you may need pap smears more frequently if:

  • You have a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, an organ transplant, or steroid use
  • You are HIV-positive
  • Your mother was exposed to DES (diethylstilbestrol) while pregnant
  • You've had cervical cancer in the past or were treated for abnormal pap results
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