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If you’re a woman, you’ve likely undergone this routine (and mildly uncomfortable) procedure. But no matter how you feel about them, Pap smears play an important role in your health as a woman.

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a screening performed in your doctor’s office (typically by a gynecologist, but nurse practitioners and family doctors also perform them). A Pap smear tests for cervical cancer or any abnormalities in your cervix.

During the procedure, your doctor gently scrapes cells from your cervix to be examined. While these screenings can be a little uncomfortable and awkward, a Pap smear should never cause pain.

Whether you’re a Pap smear newbie or veteran, here are five things you should know about this simple, lifesaving screening.

1. Most women should have a Pap smear every 3 years.

Current guidelines recommend women should start getting routine Pap smears every three years beginning at age 21. 

Some women may need more frequent screenings, especially those who have an increased risk for cervical cancer or infection, while some women over age 65 may be able to stop getting Pap smears altogether! Talk to your doctor to see what’s right for you.

2. Whether you’re sexually active or not, you still need a Pap smear.

Most cervical cancers are caused by an infection from the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. However, not all cervical cancers stem from HPV, which means Pap smears are necessary whether you’re sexually active or not. 

3. Pap smears do not screen for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Pap smears test for any abnormal cell changes in your cervix, which could lead to or be cervical cancer. Pap smears do not test for HPV or other STDs, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. If you want to be tested for STDs, be sure to ask your doctor during your appointment. 

4. A Pap smear is different from a pelvic exam.

Yes, a Pap smear and pelvic exam are different — and yes, you need both! 

  • A pelvic exam is typically performed at your annual well-woman visit with your gynecologist or women’s health provider. During this exam, your doctor will check your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, rectum and pelvis for any abnormalities. 
  • A Pap smear specifically tests for cervical cancer. If you’re due for one, you can get a Pap smear during your annual pelvic exam.

5. You may want to reschedule your Pap smear if you’re on your period.

Technically, you can get a Pap smear while on your period, but it may be better to reschedule to a time when you aren’t menstruating. Depending on how heavy your flow is, it may affect the results of your screening. If your flow is lighter, it may not be an issue. Talk with your doctor if you’re on your period, and he or she can help you decide what’s right for you.

Just due for a pelvic exam? There’s no reason to avoid it while on your period, unless you’re having the pelvic exam because you’re experiencing abnormal discharge or another issue. 

P.S. Your doctor is not grossed out by your period!

Get a Pap smear today

Because symptoms of cervical cancer can be mistaken for other common conditions, it’s crucial to get regular Pap smears to detect it as early as possible. It just might save your life. 

Remind your mom, sisters, friends – every woman in your life – today! Our women’s health team is standing by, ready to help you live a long, healthy life.

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