A Pap test is a way to look for changes in cells of the cervix. It is often done as part of a pelvic exam.
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Health issues and infections can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes are called cervical dysplasia. Some of these changes can lead to cancer. A pap test can find these changes early and stop cancer from developing. The test can also detect cancer cells that have already developed.
A pap test is a recommended part of regular cancer screening. There are many different guidelines on how often the test should be done. The doctor and patient will decide what schedule is best. Some general guidelines include:
There are no major problems caused by this test.
To improve accuracy of results:
Tell your doctor if you:
You will lie on your back on an examination table. You will place your feet in foot rests. A speculum will be inserted into the vagina. It will gently open the vagina. A fine brush or spatula will be used to wipe the surface of the cervix and its canal. The speculum will be removed. The cervical cells that stuck to the tools will be placed in a fluid-filled bottle. The cells will then be sent to a lab for testing.
The pelvic exam takes less than 5 minutes.
A Pap test is generally painless. You may feel some pressure or a small cramp when the cervix is wiped to gather cells.
The results of your Pap test are sent to your doctor within 2 to 3 weeks. Your doctor will let you know about the results.
After the test, call your doctor if any of the following occurs:
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Women's Health—US Department of Health and Human Services
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
American Cancer Society (ACS) review of guidelines and issues on cancer screening can be found in CA Cancer J Clin 2019 May;69(3):184
Cervical cancer screening. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/cervical-cancer-screening#GUID-AC126B85-8E36-449D-AC6D-B94B87EE310D. Updated January 29, 2019. Accessed September 27, 2020.
United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations for cervical cancer screening can be found in JAMA 2018 Aug 21;320(7):674
Last reviewed September 2020 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Beverly Siegal, MD, FACOG
Last Updated: 09/27/2020