A pap test, more specifically known as a pap smear, is a standard medical testing procedure performed to screen for cervical cancer. A small sample of cervical tissue cells is collected and tested for the presence of cancerous or precancerous cells. The pap smear can be done in conjunction with other pelvic examinations.
Early detection is one of the best means of surviving cancer, as treatment can begin as soon as possible and the likelihood of cure is thereby increased. Pap smears can determine the presence of cancer as well as the likelihood of cancer presenting in the future. The pap smear is an easy and effective way to manage one’s cervical health.
Anatomy of a Pap Test
The cervix is the narrow neck at the lower end of the uterus, which connects the uterus and the vagina. It is located at the deepest point of the vagina. To reach the cervix, the medical practitioner performing the exam inserts a speculum into the vagina to hold the vaginal walls open.
With the vaginal walls held open, the medical practitioner has visibility of the cervix and can reach it without vaginal tissue interfering. For the accuracy of the test, it is important to procure only cervical tissue cells. The examiner then uses a narrow instrument such as a curette or a small brush to scrape a small amount of cells from the cervix. For some people, this experience can be uncomfortable, if not painful.
When to get a pap test
Generally, medical experts recommend that pap testing begin somewhere between the ages of 20 and 25, and continue at 3 year intervals until the age of 65. However, depending on an individual’s unique health circumstances, their doctor may make different recommendations for when and how often they should be screened for cervical cancer.
Anyone who has had an abnormal test in the past, HIV positive people, and immunocompromised people all may need to test more frequently.
Pap tests and HPV testing
A pap test is often performed in conjunction with testing for human papillomavirus, more commonly abbreviated to HPV. HPV is an sexually transmitted infection that causes genital warts and certain strains of HPV (most specifically types 16 and 18) can increase the risk of cervical cancer in an individual.
Regular pap tests with HPV screening should continue regardless of your current sexual activity. The infection can be asymptomatic and lie dormant for years. HPV may heal itself without causing any further health issues. However, if it doesn’t, it could trigger a cancer, sometimes several years after the initial infection.
There are ways one can reduce the risk of contracting HPV. A safe and effective vaccine is available for protection against diseases caused by human papillomaviruses. However, it is only recommended for certain age groups. Anyone above the age of 26 should consult their doctor to determine if it is the right choice for them. When sexually active, using condoms and regular STI testing are highly recommended to reduce the contraction and spread of HPV.