Medically reviewed by Sophia Yen, MD, MPH – Written by Christal
For those of you that have never heard of a PAP (Papanicolaou) smear, let me share with you about what goes down… Pap smear = Pap test and a Pap test checks for cervical cancer. Cells are scraped from the opening of the cervix and examined under a microscope to see if there are any abnormal potentially cancerous cells. FYI: the cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens at the top of the vagina (you are welcome to look it up on google if you want to see how it looks like).
To get a Pap smear, you have to get a pelvic exam which involves you sitting on a table and placing your feet in stirrups, which definitely feels awkward. You’re in this position so that your doctor can better see your cervix.
Your doctor then gently places an instrument called a speculum into the vagina so that she (or he if you’re comfortable with that) can see inside the vagina and cervix. It’s most likely not as pretty as this Zoe Buckman piece, but this is what a speculum looks like. It might be cold and hard and a weird feeling, but it won’t hurt. Just relax, it makes it easier for both the doctor and you.
Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area. The sample of cells is sent to a lab for examination. Not gonna lie, it’s a weird sensation having that spatula and small bristle-tipped brush in you. It feels a bit like a cramp, but mostly pressure. It’s nothing that you have felt before! And it’s very difficult to describe even though I’ve had it done three times now.
I would avoid scheduling your Pap test while you have your period because blood may make the Pap test results less accurate. It’s also probably gross for both you and your doctor to have to dig through your vagina while you’re bleeding. I also recommend emptying your bladder just before the test so you don’t accidentally pee on your doctor. Ideally, your doctor would take your urine sample just right before to check for UTIs/STIs.
Pap screening should start at age 21. You should have a Pap test every 3 years to check for cervical cancer. If you’ve never been sexually active, then technically you don’t have to, but since it’s covered under your insurance, you should still get it done.
If you are over age 30 and you also have HPV testing done, and both the Pap test and HPV test are normal, you can be tested every 5 years (HPV is the human papillomavirus, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer).
Most women can stop having Pap tests after age 65 to 70 as long as they have had 3 negative tests within the past 10 years.
FYI = A pap smear is not a comprehensive STI check. Be sure to still get tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV (blood test or cheek swab) at least once a year! All of these should be covered under your insurance. Stay tuned for our next article regarding the limitations of STI testing.
The above information is for general informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your doctor/primary care provider before starting or changing treatment.