Although you can get a Pap smear during your menstrual period, some doctors may prefer you do not. A heavy flow may alter your exam results. If in doubt, it’s better to ask your OB-GYN, but try not to skip the test.

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A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a screening test that detects cells that could turn into cervical cancer. According to the Office on Women’s Health, you should have this test done every 3 or 5 years, depending on your age.

While there may be situations when you need to reschedule a Pap smear, being on your period isn’t necessarily one of them. Here’s what you need to know about getting a Pap test while on your period and how menstruation could potentially alter the results.

Technically, you can get a Pap smear while on your period, but it’s still better to get one if you’re not menstruating. The presence of blood may alter the accuracy of your results, especially if you have a heavy flow.

Spotting may not present as much of a problem in terms of testing accuracy. However, you should still check with your OB-GYN to be on the safe side.

The Cancer Institute of New South Wales recommends getting Pap smears done during the middle of your cycle or about 9 to 20 days after the first day of your period. As a rule of thumb, though, it’s better to get Pap testing done any time that works for your schedule so you don’t risk skipping this important exam.

Pap smears are used as early detection tools for cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) say that women over age 21 need regular Pap testing every 3 years, or when they start having sex.

An OB-GYN, primary doctor, or physician’s assistant gathers a small sample of cells from your cervix, and then sends them to a lab for further evaluation. Your healthcare professional will call you with the results.

If any cells are deemed pre-cancerous or “abnormal” they will discuss next steps with you, including a possible colposcopy. It’s important to treat cervical cancer before any abnormal cells grow deeper within your cervix, or spread (metastasize) to other areas in your body.

Sometimes, your doctor will also order that the same Pap smear be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV). The ACOG says that while most HPV infections resolve on their own, severe cases may lead to cervical cancer within 1 to 2 years in some women.

During a Pap smear, you will lie back on the examination table while your doctor inserts a speculum into your vagina. Then, they will quickly swab your cervix, collecting cells and mucus. The collection is then placed in a sealed container to be sent off to a lab for testing.

Typically, your doctor will also conduct a pelvic exam during a Pap smear to see if there are any abnormalities. Depending on the level of your flow, this physical exam may be more challenging to complete during menstruation.

However, being on your period alone doesn’t change the way a Pap smear is done. Some OB-GYNs prefer not to conduct Pap testing if you’re menstruating, and there’s also a risk of false-negative results.

Getting a Pap smear done while on your period may still yield accurate results, but there’s a risk that a heavy flow could result in some false ones, too.

The presence of blood in a Pap smear sample may conceal abnormal cervical cells, potentially leading to a false-negative result. For this reason, the ACOG recommends that you schedule your Pap for when you are not on your period.

However, if you can’t reschedule your appointment for a time in the near future, the Office on Women’s Health recommends calling your doctor for advice. In some cases, it may be better to have your Pap smear while on your period rather than skipping it entirely.

Other things that could potentially alter your Pap test results include having sex, douching, or using vaginal hygiene products 2 days beforehand, according to the ACOG.

If you do have a Pap done during your period and the results are normal, your doctor may still recommend a repeat test every 3 years.

How to prepare for a Pap test if you’re on your period

While it’s best to schedule your regular Pap smears when you’re not expecting your period, your OB-GYN understands that your cycles can change. If you get your period right before your appointment, the first thing to do is to call the doctor’s office for advice.

If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you may consider wearing pads instead of other hygiene products before and during your appointment. You can then get rid of any used pads before the Pap smear and replace them with clean ones immediately after the exam.

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It’s still possible to get your Pap smear done despite being on your period. However, there may be a risk of inaccurate results, especially if your flow is heavy during the day of your exam.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to call your OB-GYN if you have a Pap scheduled and have unexpectedly started your period. They will give you advice regarding your next steps.