So What Does a Pap Smear Test for Anyway?

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Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash

A Pap smear, short for a Papanicolaou test, may not rank among the most pleasant experiences in the world, but it is one of the most essential. This common test is typically conducted annually (or potentially less often) as part of your regular gynecological exam. The Pap smear has become a standard component of a good reproductive health regimen, but what does a Pap smear test for? Here’s what the test can reveal—and why you need one.

What Happens During a Pap Smear?

To understand what a Pap smear tests for, it’s important to understand what the test entails. The procedure, invented by George Papanicolaou, PhD in the 1940s, is relatively simple. During an exam, the gynecologist will use a speculum (which looks substantially scarier than it actually is) to examine the vagina. The tip of the cervix (located at the base of the uterus) is visually examined. A specialized brush and spatula are also used to retrieve cell samples from the tip of the uterus. While this process is not painful, it can be a little uncomfortable.

What Does a Pap Smear Test For?

Once the cells are removed, they are tested for cervical abnormalities, specifically those that could lead to cervical cancer. Simply put, the Pap smear is all about the cervix. Its primary aim is to detect cervical tissues that are abnormal or symptoms that could potentially lead to cervical cancer in the future. Cervical cancer is, in nearly all cases, caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), an infection that the Pap smear is designed to detect.

In examining what Pap smears test for, it’s important to know what it doesn’t test for: STIs and STDs. While cervical fluid may be collected and tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea, the only sexually transmitted infection that’s definitely tested during a Pap smear is HPV. If you’re concerned about STIs or STDs, it’s a good idea to request a blood test for infections like HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B. Certain infections can also be detected through a simple urine test.

Interestingly enough, the need to undergo a Pap smear diminishes as you grow older. Women aged 21 to 29 should get the test once every three years (or more frequently, depending on your doctor’s recommendation), while women aged 30 to 65 should follow this schedule combined with a simple HPV test. As you plan your next exam, your ob-gyn is a fantastic resource for determining which tests you should take and when.