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What’s a Pap Test? (Pap Smear)

pap smear, pap test, hpv
By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: January 11, 2017 Revised: January 11, 2017

I’ve always been proud of my knowledge of vulvas and vaginas, however, I never really looked into what a Pap test was. So, when the opportunity arose, I raised my hand in a staff meeting and happily said, “I’ll take this article.” Now I’m going to inform you after I went out and informed myself, because well, that’s kind of my job.

…you should start getting your Pap tests once you turn 21 and then you should get one every three years.

What’s a Pap Test (Pap Smear)?

Let’s start with the basics: A Pap test is when cells are taken from the cervix—the lower part of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina—and examined to see if the sample contains any irregular cells. A health care provider will use a speculum—a plastic device used to gently open the walls of the vagina—to temporarily widen the opening of the vagina and then use what’s basically a tiny spatula and a small brush to collect cells. These cells are then examined like any other cell: microscope, white jacket, you know, like on Grey’s Anatomy. A Pap test can be a little bit uncomfortable but is very quick.

Pap tests used to be given to women every year; however that has changed very recently. Now, a woman between the ages of 21 and 29 should get one every three years, while women between the ages of 30 and 65 should get one every five years—along with an HPV test. The younger age group does not get the HPV testing because HPV cells usually seen in younger women will most likely correct themselves and become harmless without any outside help.

The theory is that by not testing every year for either age group, women won’t have as many scares as they used to because getting a test back saying you have “cervical dysplasia”—basically, irregular cells—is scary, even though many cases clear up all on their own.

Abnormal Cervical Cells

But what exactly are the harmful cells that gynecologists and health care providers everywhere are looking for? They’re looking for pre-cancerous or abnormal cervical cells, which in most cases are caused by an HPV infection. HPV or human papilloma virus is a sexually transmitted disease. Some strains cause genital warts while others may cause those irregular cervical cells that health care providers use a Pap test to find. (HPV vaccines, like Gardasil, protect you from certain strains of HPV known to cause cervical cancer.)

When a Pap test does find irregular cells, it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. Many of these abnormal cells end up clearing up on their own. Sometimes the cells might be precancerous; however, these can also clear up on their own. Regular Pap tests allow your health care provider to monitor whether the cells are clearing up and what treatment to provide if they aren’t.

So in short, the Pap test—which sounds like something so strange and mystical—is actually just a run of the mill screening for abnormal cells.

When You Turn 21

It’s very important to remember to get your tests done. When the time to start getting tested gets closer, your gynecologist or regular health care provider will most likely remind you that it’s time to get your Pap test. However, I like to think that when you finally turn 21, there will be this nagging reminder in the back of your head that I put there, alerting you to see your gynecologist and get your Pap test because your vaginal health is extremely important. So if you leave this article with any shred of information, I want it to be that you should start getting your Pap tests once you turn 21 and then you should get one every three years.

Now go out into the world with your new knowledge and spread it—I know I will.

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