A Pap test is done to look for changes in the cells of the cervix. During a Pap test, a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix is collected by your doctor. The sample is then spread on a slide (Pap smear) or mixed in a liquid fixative (liquid-based cytology) and sent to a lab for examination under a microscope. The cells are examined for abnormalities that may point to abnormal cell changes, such as dysplasia or cervical cancer.
The recommended Pap test schedule is based on your age and on things that increase your risk. Talk to your doctor about how often to have this test.
A high-risk type of the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of most cases of cervical cancer. In women older than 30, an HPV test may be done at the same time as a Pap test. If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the series of HPV shots to prevent infection with the types of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer.
If your Pap test shows an abnormal result, see the topic Abnormal Pap Test.
How To Prepare
Before a Pap test:
Try to schedule the test when you are not having your period since blood can interfere with the results of the test. If your bleeding is light, you may still be able to have a Pap test.
Do not use douches, tampons, vaginal medicines, sprays, or powders for at least 24 hours before having a Pap test.
Some doctors recommend avoiding sex for 24 hours before a Pap test.
At the beginning of your visit, tell your doctor:
- If you are or might be pregnant.
- If you have any reproductive or urinary tract symptoms such as itching, redness, sores, swelling, or unusual odor or increased vaginal discharge. If you have been performing regular vaginal self-exams, discuss any changes you have noticed with your doctor. To learn more, see the topic Vaginal Self-Examination (VSE).
- If you are using birth control.
- If this is your first Pap test.
- The first day of your last menstrual period and how long your period lasted.
- If you have had surgery or other procedures such as radiation therapy to the vagina, cervix, uterus, or vulva.
- If you have had problems with pelvic exams in the past or have experienced rape or sexual abuse, talk to your doctor about your concerns or fears before the exam.
No other special preparations are needed before having a Pap test. For your own comfort, you may want to empty your bladder before the exam.
Tell your doctor whether you have had an abnormal Pap test in the past.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form.