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Geisinger becomes the first member of Risant Health

Routine Pap smears are one of the best (and simplest) ways to prevent and detect cervical cancer.

Whether it's your first or fifth time, it’s completely normal to feel nervous or have questions before a Pap smear. But knowing what to expect can help put your mind at ease before your appointment.

“Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers,” says Scott C. Purinton, MD, PhD, chief of gynecologic oncology and director of robotic surgery at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. “Staying up to date on your Pap smears is a big part of that.”

Here’s what to know about this valuable procedure.

What is a Pap smear for?

A Pap smear, or Pap test, checks for changes in your cervical and vaginal cells that could develop into cancer over time.

“One of the biggest advantages of these tests is their ability to detect abnormal cells before they even become cancerous,” says Dr. Purinton. “This leads to earlier treatment and better outcomes.”

During the procedure, your healthcare provider gently scrapes cells from your cervix. These cells are examined for changes and can also be tested for 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.

How often should you get a Pap smear?

How often you need a Pap smear depends on your age and health history. The guidelines are:

  • Women ages 21 – 29: You should have a Pap smear every three years.
  • Women ages 30 – 65: Discuss the following options with your doctor:
    • Have both a Pap smear and an HPV test every 5 years
    • Have only a Pap smear every 3 years
    • Have only an HPV test every 5 years
  • Women older than 65: You might no longer need to be screened, depending on your health history and doctor’s recommendation.

Do you need a Pap smear if not sexually active?

Yes, whether you’re sexually active or not, you still need a Pap smear. While most cervical cancers are caused by HPV (which is sexually transmitted), this isn’t the case for all cancers.

Do Pap smears test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

Pap smears don’t screen for STIs like HPV, gonorrhea or chlamydia. Instead, they test for any abnormal cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer. If you want additional testing for STIs, ask your healthcare provider during your appointment.

Is a Pap smear 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.

Can you get a Pap smear on your period?

Depending on how heavy your flow is, your period may affect the results of your Pap smear.

“A lot of blood can make your sample harder to read, which could produce inaccurate results,” explains Dr. Purinton. “This shouldn’t be an issue if your flow is lighter.”

The best thing you can do is call your provider’s office and talk about your options.

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

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

Schedule your procedure 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).

And if you still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask your provider.

“There are no bad questions when it comes to your health,” says Dr. Purinton. “We want you to be open and honest so we can help you achieve your best health.” 

Next steps:

Find a women’s health provider near you
Watch for these early signs of cervical cancer 
How to calm your nerves before a gynecologist appointment

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