A Pap smear is a diagnostic test used to detect cervical cancer. The test takes a very small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix (the uterine opening) and evaluates those cells for abnormalities associated with cancer. Pap tests are painless, and they’re usually are performed during routine pelvic exams. The test uses a long-handled swab to gently wipe away a sample of cells from the cervix. Then that cell sample is carefully evaluated in a lab.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends women have a Pap test every starting at age 21. Women with risk factors for cervical cancer may need to have Pap smears performed more often. How often a woman needs a Pap smear is determined by age and risk factors.
No. Pap smears are performed to look for abnormal cells that can develop into cancer years down the road. The good news is that with regular pap smear screening, cervical cancer can be prevented.
Because Pap smear results can be abnormal for different reasons including transient causes like hormonal fluctuations, if you have an abnormal result, your doctor may perform a second Pap test to confirm the result of the first test.
Your doctor may decide to perform a second type of evaluation called colposcopy. In a colposcopy, the doctor uses a special lighted magnifying instrument called a colposcope to gain a closer look at the cervix and other surrounding tissues to look for visible signs of abnormal tissue growth.
During the exam, the doctor will use a speculum to visualize the cervix and the colposcope will be placed at the vaginal opening. Then the doctor will use a special spray to coat the cervix and the vaginal canal. The spray causes abnormal areas of tissue to appear “highlighted” compared to the surrounding tissue, making them easier to identify. Once these areas are located, the doctor may obtain small tissue samples or biopsies for further evaluation in a lab. When biopsies are taken, there may be some slight bleeding for a few days afterward. A colposcopy takes about 20 minutes or less to perform.
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