The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for cancers and precancers in the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina). Precancers are cell changes that might become cancer if they are not treated the right way. Most health insurance plans must cover Pap tests or cervical cancer screening at no cost to you.
A Pap test checks the cervix for abnormal cell changes. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb), which opens into the vagina. Cell changes can develop on the cervix that, if not found and treated, can lead to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can almost always be prevented, and having regular Pap tests is the key.
A Pap test can save your life. It can find early signs of cervical cancer. If caught early, the chance of successful treatment of cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests can also find abnormal cervical cells before they turn into cancer cells. Treating these abnormal cells can help prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing. Getting a Pap test is one of the best things you can do to prevent cervical cancer.
Most women ages 21 to 65 should get Pap tests as part of routine health care. Even if you are not currently sexually active, you should still have a Pap test. Women who have gone through menopause (when a woman's periods stop) and are younger than 65 still need regular Pap tests.
Women who do not have a cervix (usually because of a hysterectomy), and who also do not have a history of cervical cancer or abnormal Pap results, do not need Pap tests. Women ages 65 and older who have had three normal Pap tests in a row and no abnormal test results in the last 10 years do not need Pap tests.
The only women who do not need regular Pap tests are:
All women should speak to a doctor before stopping regular Pap tests.
It depends on the type of hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) you had and your health history. Women who have had a hysterectomy should talk with their doctor about whether they need routine Pap tests.
It depends on your age and health history. Talk with your doctor about what is best for you. Most women can follow these guidelines:
Some women may need more frequent Pap tests. You should talk to your doctor about getting a Pap test more often if:
Some things can cause incorrect Pap test results.
For two days before the test do not:
No. Doctors suggest you schedule a Pap test when you do not have your period. The best time to be tested is 10 to 20 days after the first day of your period.
Your doctor can do a Pap test during a pelvic exam. It is a simple and quick test. You will lie down on an exam table. Your doctor will put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina and will open it to see your cervix. He or she will then use a special stick or brush to take a few cells from the surface of and inside the cervix. The cells are placed on a glass slide and sent to a lab for testing. A Pap test may be mildly uncomfortable but should not be painful. You may have some spotting afterwards.
Usually it takes one to three weeks to get Pap test results. Most of the time, test results are normal. If the test shows that something might be wrong, your doctor will contact you to schedule more tests. There are many reasons for abnormal Pap test results. Abnormal Pap test results do not always mean you have cancer.
It can be scary to hear that your Pap test results are "abnormal." But abnormal Pap test results usually do not mean you have cancer. Most often there is a small problem with the cervix. If results of the Pap test are unclear or show a small change in the cells of the cervix, your doctor may repeat the Pap test immediately, in 6 months, or a year, or he or she may run more tests.
Some abnormal cells will turn into cancer. Treating abnormal cells that don't go away on their own can prevent almost all cases of cervical cancer. If you have abnormal results, talk with your doctor about what they mean. Your doctor should answer any questions you have and explain anything you don't understand. Treatment for abnormal cells is often done in a doctor's office during a routine appointment.
If the test finds more serious changes in the cells of the cervix, the doctor will suggest more tests. Results of these tests will help your doctor decide on the best treatment.
Pap tests are not always perfect. False positive and false negative results can happen. This can be upsetting and confusing.
You can reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer in several ways:
Pap tests are covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care law passed in 2010. Most insurance plans now cover Pap tests at no cost to you.
For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
For more information on Pap tests, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
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Page last updated: June 12, 2017.
Content last reviewed: October 23, 2013.