When it comes to essential health tools in the prevention of female based cancers, pap smears share the title with mammograms as the most important. Pap smears, however, are done as screenings for cervical cancer, checking for the presence of cancerous or even precancerous cells in the cervix.

During the process of a pap smear, a small sample is taken of the cells lining the cervix, which are then inspected under a microscope for any abnormalities. Unlike breast cancer, the early stages of cervical cancer are virtually symptom free, as there are no weird lumps that appear, making it important to undertake regular pap smears.

Wondering how often you need a Pap smear, what Pap smears test for, and why they’re so important? Anna Bradley from Beauty Heaven spoke to health professional Dr. Andy Stamatiou, to get answers for you, but make sure you always consult with your own doctor for more personalized advice. Watch the video below where a gynaecologist answers your common Pap smear questions:

Who Can Benefit From Pap Smears?

Contrary to mammograms, which are generally advised for women, aged 40 and older, cervical cancer tends to occur in younger women, with pap smears being less mandatory the older you get.

An annual Pap smear beginning at age 21 is recommended, and sometimes more often if you are deemed as being high risk.

This can include situations such as:

  • Being HIV positive
  • If you use medications to suppress the immune system or suffer from auto-immune type of disorders
  • Having multiple sexual partners of testing HPV positive

Starting at age 30, if you have had 3 clear pap smears in a row, you may be exempt from yearly testing, being able to do it once every 5 years. Older women, especially those over 65 may be exempt from future testing if no indication of cancerous or precancerous symptoms have ever been found during testing.

Do All Women Need Pap Smears?

There is a small exception to the rule, but one which does not need to be rigidly enforced. This occurs in women over the age of 21 who are still virgins, as many cases of cervical cancers are caused by the virus HPV, thought to be sexually transmitted. This is not to say that HPV is the sole cause of cervical cancers, but it does account for a fair proportion of cases.

Preparing For Your Pap Smear

A pap smear can easily be performed during your annual gynecological examination, as it only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete. While it can be performed any time of the year, there are guidelines you should follow in order to ensure the procedure comes off without a hitch.

These include:

  • Avoiding intercourse for 24-48 hours before the procedure
  • Not using douches or other types of feminine washes the day before the Pap smear
  • Avoiding use of vaginal contraceptives, such as spermicides and jellies
  • Do not perform while experiencing active menstrual bleeding, as this may lead to unclear results
  • Waiting at least 12 weeks after giving birth

How Is The Pap Smear Performed?

The Pap smear is a pelvic examination, and is performed in a gynecologist’s office, using a speculum. The speculum helps to relax the muscles of the vagina and cervix, allowing for easy sample removal of the mucus and cells lining the cervix.

The scraping procedure is done with a tool sometimes called a spatula, and is largely painless, although some discomfort may occur immediately following the procedure.

Here’s a short video demonstrating how the Pap smear test procedure is performed:

Are There Any Risks Associated With The Pap Smear?

The only possible complications that can arise from a pap smear include acute bleeding immediately following the procedure, mild burning or discomfort. These usually pass very fast and are not recurrent.

Collecting Your Pap Smear Results

The time to process results can range from 3 days to 3 weeks, at which time you are instructed what to do next by your doctor.

If you have been regularly doing pap smears, and a small change is detected, these can usually be taken care of quite easily. This makes it important for you to attend regularly scheduled screenings.