During a Pap test, your healthcare provider collects cells from your cervix. These cells are examined for abnormalities that may indicate pre-cancer, cancer, infection or inflammation.
Your doctor uses an instrument called a speculum to widen the vagina. Then, she gently swabs the surface of your cervix, and places the collected cells onto a microscope slide for examination at a lab. This is why it's also called the Pap smear.
Physicians (especially gynecologists), physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives typically perform the test, usually in a doctor's office, clinic or hospital.
The Pap test is a critical portion of your healthcare routine. The abnormalities that Pap tests detect may lead to cancer. When detected early, your doctor can address such abnormalities and head off cancer.
Not so long ago, every woman was encouraged to have at least one Pap test per year beginning at age 18. In 2009, however, the guidelines changed a bit, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) now recommends the following:
A shower the morning or night before your Pap smear is adequate, advises Dr. Matilde Parente, a female pathologist who's read thousands of Pap smears. Do not use vaginal washes, foams, gels, douches or other chemicals before your appointment. Refrain from having sex for one or two days before your test, and schedule the Pap for when you are not having active menstrual bleeding.
Your results will be reported as "normal" ("negative") or "abnormal" ("positive"). According to the National Cancer Institute, about 6 percent of all Pap tests in the U.S. are abnormal and require followup care.
Abnormal cells rarely become cancerous. Your doctor may perform another Pap test to compare to the original. Often, abnormal cells in the cervix go away without treatment.
Your doctor may do followup testing (a colposcopy) to examine your cervix and vagina further. If the colposcopy finds abnormalities, the doctor may take a biopsy of the area for examination. From there, she can determine the chance of those cells becoming cancerous and whether further treatment is needed.
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