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Pap Smear

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What do I need to know about a Pap smear?

A Pap smear, or Pap test, is used to screen for cervical cancer. It is also used to find precancerous and cancerous cells of the vulva and vagina.

How do I prepare for a Pap smear?

The best time to schedule the test is right after your period stops. Do not have a Pap smear during your monthly period.

What will happen during a Pap smear?

  • You will lie on your back and place your feet on footrests called stirrups. Your healthcare provider will gently insert a device called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum is used to open the walls of your vagina so your provider can see your cervix.
  • Your provider will gently take cell samples from your cervix and vagina. The samples are placed in a container with liquid or on a glass slide. They are sent to a lab and examined for abnormal cells. A test for human papillomavirus (HPV) may be done at the same time. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause changes in cervical cells.

What will happen after a Pap smear?

You may have some spotting the day of your procedure.

What do my test results mean?

Your healthcare provider will tell you when you can expect your Pap smear results. It usually takes about 1 to 3 weeks.

  • Normal results mean that no cell changes were found on your cervix. You may be able to wait 3 to 5 years for your next Pap smear exam.
  • Unclear results may mean they did not get a good sample of cervical tissue. Or, it may mean there are changes in your cells that look abnormal. This could be due to an infection, pregnancy, menopause, or HPV. You may need another Pap smear in 1 year. Your healthcare provider will tell you what to do next.
  • Abnormal results mean that cell changes were found on your cervix. This does not mean you have cervical cancer. It could mean you have inflammation or an infection. It could also mean you have HPV or cells that might develop into cancer. Your healthcare provider will explain the abnormal test result to you and go over next steps with you. He or she may recommend a colposcopy. During this procedure, a small scope with a light is used to look more closely at your cervix and vagina.

How often do I need to get a Pap smear?

Pap smears usually start at age 21 and continue until age 65. A Pap smear alone may be done every 3 years. An HPV test alone or with a Pap smear may be done every 5 years, starting at age 30. You may need Pap smears more often or continuing after age 65 if you have any of the following:

  • Abnormal Pap smear result
  • Positive HPV test result
  • A history of cervical cancer, or a high risk for cervical cancer
  • HIV
  • A weak immune system
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) medicine when your mother was pregnant with you

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have severe bleeding.
  • It has been 3 weeks and you do not have test results.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.