What to expect from a pelvic exam
A pap test, also known as a pap smear, is an examination of a small sample of cells from the cervix. Pap is short for Dr. George Papanicolaou, the name of the doctor who conducted studies of cervical cells and pioneered the pap test.
Facts about the Pap Test
A pap test is a common part of a pelvic exam, where a doctor or other medical professional examines a woman's reproductive organs. A pap test may not be part of a first pelvic exam, but pap testing should begin at age 21 or 2 to 3 years after a woman becomes sexually active, whichever comes earlier.
Women under 30 should have an annual pap test, and women over 30 can wait 2 to 3 years between pap tests as long as their last three tests have been normal. Regular checkups including a pelvic exam with pap smear are important proactive measures for your reproductive health, and this test can often catch potentially serious problems before they progress too far.
During a pap test, the doctor gently inserts a medical device called a speculum into the vagina so that the cervix can be seen. A thin plastic wand and brush are fed through the speculum to wipe off a few cells from the cervix, which are then placed onto a slide or in a specimen container. The cells are sent to a laboratory for further examination.
The pap smear is not painful, but it and the pelvic exam may be slightly uncomfortable. The best way to minimize any discomfort is to consciously try to relax and take long, slow breaths.
What Does an Abnormal Pap Smear Mean?
Most pap smear results come back from the laboratory as normal, but the doctor or someone from the doctor's office will contact the patient if the pap test results are abnormal. There are three main categories of abnormal pap test results:
- Unsatisfactory, which means that the sample of cells was not good enough to be read by the technician at the laboratory. In this case, a repeat pap test will be scheduled.
- Benign changes, which means that the test results are basically normal, but there may be an infection which is causing the cervical cells to be inflamed. The doctor will usually schedule a follow-up exam to prescribe treatment for the infection.
- Atypical Squamous Cells of Undetermined Significance (or ASCUS), which means that some of the cells look a little different and a follow-up procedure is needed. Most often, the doctor will perform another pap smear, and if atypical cells are found again, may perform a procedure called a colposcopy to further examine the cervix.
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