Pap Smear Fact Sheet
Pap smears, or cervical smears, are screening tools for cervical cancer. The test examines the lower section of the uterus called the cervix. Doctors scrape cells from the cervix’s opening and analyze them for abnormalities.
Overview of the Test
A Pap test can find early signs of cervical cancer. When doctors detect cervical cancer early, the chances of it being cured increase significantly. Getting Pap smears on a regular basis lowers instances of cancer and cancer-related deaths.
Evidence and Science behind the Test
The Food and Drug Administration approved Pap smears in 1996. There have been more than 170 research studies published that support the effectiveness of the ThinPrep Pap test alone. Studies show that the ThinPrep Pap test is a cost effective method for detecting cervical cancer. It can find precancerous cells more often than conventional tests.
How is it done?
A Pap smear is generally done as part of a pelvic examination. A woman lies on the exam table and places her feet in the stirrups. A speculum is inserted into her vagina. This tool allows the doctor to widen the vaginal opening to better view the cervix. The doctor scrapes the cervix to obtain a cell sample. The cells are put on a glass slide, which is then sent to a laboratory for testing.
Who does it?
Doctors and nurses.
When and How Often?
General recommendations for Pap smears state that women in their early 20s should get tested biennially. Sometimes, guidelines will incorrectly say biannually, which means every six months instead of the correct recommendation of every 24 months.
Some doctors may advise patients in their 30s or older who have had three negative Pap smears consecutively to get tested only every three years. However, the addition of new sexual partners could mean Pap smears should again be done biennially.
Older women may not need Pap smears. Women age 65 and older whose last three Pap smears produced negative results may no longer require testing. Having sex with a new person means testing should resume.
Women who have undergone a total hysterectomy may not need testing if they have never had cervical or pelvic cancer, or abnormal test results in the past decade.
Programs in many areas have no-cost or low-cost Pap smears for women who need them. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program in the US offers affordable or free tests.
The cost of a Pap smear includes the exam by a healthcare professional as well as lab fees. The price may range anywhere from $20 to $200.
Pap smears are generally not painful, but some women experience discomfort. Feelings of pressure in the vagina are common, and some women will experience a small amount of bleeding after a Pap smear.
Pap smears do not always detect cervical cancer. The test is usually very accurate and only misses a few instances of cancer. There are occasional false positives and false negatives and sometimes the test may need repeating as there are not enough cells to analyze in the sample.
- Australian Government Department of Health Ageing
- Medline Plus
- The Thin Prep Pap Test
- Clear Health Costs
- Fast Living Slow Ageing; Kate Marie and Christopher Thomas; 2009
Last reviewed 26/Feb/2014