A Pap smear (or Pap test) is a simple procedure that looks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix. The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus, located at the top of your vagina.

The Pap smear test can detect precancerous cells. Precancerous cells can be removed before they have a chance to develop into cervical cancer, which makes this test a potential lifesaver.

These days, you’re more likely to hear it called a Pap test rather than a Pap smear.

While no real preparation is necessary, there are a few things that can affect Pap results. For more accurate results, avoid these things for two days before your scheduled test:

  • tampons
  • vaginal suppositories, creams, medicines, or douches
  • powders, sprays, or other menstrual products
  • sexual intercourse

A Pap test can be performed during your period, but it’s better if you schedule it between periods.

If you’ve ever had a pelvic exam, the Pap test isn’t much different. You’ll lie on the table with your feet in stirrups. A speculum will be used to open your vagina and allow your doctor to see your cervix.

Your doctor will use a swab to remove a few cells from your cervix. They will place these cells on a glass slide and send them to a lab for testing.

A Pap test may be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s generally painless. The whole procedure shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

You should receive your results within a week or two.

In most cases, the result is a “normal” Pap smear. That means there’s no evidence that you have abnormal cervical cells and you won’t need to think about it again until your next scheduled test.

If you don’t receive a normal result, it doesn’t mean that you have cancer. It doesn’t even necessarily mean there’s anything wrong.

Test results can be inconclusive. This result is sometimes called ASC-US, which means atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance. The cells didn’t look quite like normal cells, but they couldn’t really be classified as abnormal.

In some cases, a poor sample can lead to inconclusive results. That might happen if you recently had intercourse or used menstrual products.

An abnormal result means some cervical cells have changed. But it doesn’t mean you have cancer. In fact, most women who have an abnormal result don’t have cervical cancer.

Some other reasons for an abnormal result are:

Abnormal cells are either low grade or high grade. Low-grade cells are only slightly abnormal. High-grade cells look less like normal cells and may develop into cancer.

The existence of abnormal cells is known as cervical dysplasia. The abnormal cells are sometimes called carcinoma in situ or precancer.

Your doctor will be able to explain the specifics of your Pap result, the likelihood of a false-positive or false-negative, and the steps you should take next.

When Pap results are unclear or inconclusive, your doctor may want to schedule a repeat test in the near future.

If you didn’t have Pap and HPV co-testing, an HPV test might be ordered. It’s performed similarly to the Pap test. There’s no specific treatment for asymptomatic HPV.

Cervical cancer also can’t be diagnosed via a Pap test. It takes additional testing to confirm cancer.

If your Pap results are unclear or inconclusive, the next step will likely be a colposcopy.

A colposcopy is a procedure in which your doctor uses a microscope to inspect your cervix. Your doctor will use a special solution during the colposcopy to help differentiate normal areas from abnormal ones.

During a colposcopy, a small piece of abnormal tissue can be removed for analysis.

Abnormal cells can be destroyed by freezing, known as cryosurgery, or removed using a cone biopsy or loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). Removing abnormal cells can prevent cervical cancer from ever developing.

If the biopsy confirms cancer, treatment will depend on other factors, such as stage and tumor grade.

The American Cancer Society recommend that screening should start at age 25.

You might need more frequent testing if:

Also, women between the ages of 25 and 65 are advised to get an HPV test every five years or if that is unavailable, a pap test every three years.

The reason for this is that co-testing is more likely to catch an abnormality than Pap testing alone. Co-testing also helps detect more cell abnormalities.

Another reason for co-testing is that cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV. But most females with HPV never develop cervical cancer.

Some women might not need to have Pap tests eventually. This includes women over age 65 who’ve had three normal Pap tests in a row and haven’t had abnormal test results in the past 10 years.

Also, women who’ve had their uterus and cervix removed — a procedure known as a hysterectomy — and have no history of abnormal Pap tests or cervical cancer may not need them, either.

Talk to your doctor about when and how often you should have a Pap test.

Can I have a Pap test while pregnant?

Yes, you can have a Pap test while you’re pregnant. You can even have a colposcopy. Having an abnormal Pap or a colposcopy while pregnant shouldn’t affect your baby.

If you need additional treatment, your doctor will advise if it should wait until your baby is born.

After an abnormal Pap test you may need more frequent testing for a few years. It depends on the reason for the abnormal result and your overall risk for cervical cancer.

The main reason for a Pap test is to find abnormal cells before they become cancerous. To lower your chances of getting HPV and cervical cancer, follow these prevention tips:

  • Get vaccinated. Since cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV, most women younger than 45 years of age should get vaccinated for HPV.
  • Practice safe sex. Use condoms to prevent HPV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Schedule an annual checkup. Tell your doctor if you develop gynecological symptoms between visits. Follow up as advised.
  • Get tested. Schedule Pap tests as recommended by your doctor. Consider Pap-HPV co-testing. Tell your doctor if your family has a history of cancer, especially cervical cancer.