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Pap smears are simple tests — but they play a big role in your health.

What is a Pap smear — and what is it for?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a screening performed in a doctor’s office by a gynecologist, nurse practitioner or family doctor. It tests for changes in your cells that could develop into cervical cancer over time.

During the procedure, your healthcare provider gently scrapes cells from your cervix. These cells are examined for changes and can also be tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.

While these screenings can be a little uncomfortable and awkward, they should never cause pain.

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

1. Most women should have a Pap smear every 3 to 5 years.

Guidelines recommend that women begin receiving routine Pap smears every three years beginning at age 21. Starting at age 30, your healthcare provider will also begin testing for HPV. If your Pap test and HPV screenings are negative, the screening interval can be extended to five years.

Some women may need more frequent testing if they’ve had abnormal test results in the past. And most women over age 65 may be able to stop getting Pap smears altogether. Talk to your healthcare provider 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 HPV, which is sexually transmitted. However, not all cervical cancers stem from HPV, so Pap tests are necessary whether you’re sexually active or not.

3. Pap smears don’t screen for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Pap smears test for any abnormal cell changes in your cervix, which could lead to cervical cancer. They don’t test for HPV or other STIs, like gonorrhea or chlamydia. If you want additional testing for STIs, be sure to ask your healthcare provider during your appointment.

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

Yes, they’re different — and yes, you need both.

  • A pelvic exam is typically performed at your annual well-woman visit with your healthcare provider. During this exam, they’ll check your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, rectum and pelvis for any abnormalities.
  • A Pap smear specifically screens for precancerous changes. 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 healthcare provider if you’re on your period, and they can help you determine 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 having abnormal discharge or another concern. 

P.S. Your period does not bother your healthcare provider.

Schedule your Pap smear today

Cervical cancer is preventable — and receiving regular Pap tests is the best way to prevent it.

Remind your mom, sisters, friends — every woman in your life — to schedule their appointment (especially if it’s been a few years).

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