What Does a Pap Smear Test For

by | Oct 7, 2022 | Blog, Sexual Health, STD

The Pap smear test is a routine test used for women to screen for cervical cancer. It can easily detect early signs of the disease, which increases the chances of successful treatment. In addition, the test is simple and relatively painless, and a doctor or a nurse can perform the test.

woman waiting for pap smear test

This article will discuss the Pap smear test, what it detects, and how a doctor or nurse performs the test. We will also explore the possible risks and side effects of the test. By understanding the Pap smear test, you can make an informed decision about whether or not to undergo this screening.



What is a Pap smear test?

It is a test that can detect changes in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Pap smears are usually done to screen for cervical cancer. Still, they can also detect other conditions such as infection or inflammation.

The healthcare provider performs the test by collecting a sample of cells from the cervix using a small brush or swab. The piece is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The doctors recommend pap smears for all women between the ages of 21 and 65. Most women should have a pap smear every three years, beginning at age 21. However, women at high risk for cervical cancer may need to undergo screening more frequently. Factors that can increase your risk include a positive family history of the disease, a history of abnormal pap smears, and a weakened immune system. If you have any concerns about your risk for cervical cancer, speak with your doctor.

However, some women may need to undergo screening more often if they have certain risk factors for cervical cancer. 



Preparation for Pap smear

Pap smears are generally safe and well tolerated. The most common side effect is discomfort or bleeding from the vagina.

There are several things you can do to prepare for a pap smear:

  • Schedule the test for a time when you will not be having your period. This can make the test more accurate.
  • Empty your bladder before the test to be more comfortable during the procedure.
  • Avoid douching, tampons, or having sex 24 hours before the test. These activities can enhance your risk of infection or make it difficult to obtain an accurate sample.


How do Healthcare Providers perform Pap smears?

The doctor or nurse performs the test by collecting cells from the cervix, which are then examined under a microscope. While most pap smears are accurate, there is a slight chance that the test may give false-positive or false-negative results. False-positive results occur when the test detects abnormal cells, even though no cancer exists. False-negative effects happen when the test fails to detect cancerous cells, even though they are present.

In either case, follow-up testing is typically performed to confirm the pap smear results. Although false-positive and false-negative results are rare, they can cause anxiety and lead to unnecessary treatment. 

During the pap smear, you will lie on your back on an exam table with your legs bent and your feet in stirrups. First, your healthcare provider will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold it open. Then, the healthcare provider uses a small brush or swab to collect cells from the cervix.

The procedure is usually quick and only mildly uncomfortable. You may feel pressure or cramping as the healthcare provider inserts the speculum, but this should go away once it is in place.

After the procedure, you can resume all normal activities. There is no need to rest or take anything for pain. You may have mild bleeding from your vagina for a day or two after the test. This is normal and nothing to worry about.



Reducing anxiety after Pap smear

There are a few things you can do to reduce anxiety during and after a pap smear:

  • Breathe deeply and slowly during the procedure. This can help you relax.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. They can explain the procedure in more detail and help put your mind at ease.
  • Focus on something else during the test. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself in a relaxing place.
  • Ask a friend or family member to be with you during the test if you feel anxious.



Complications associated with Pap smear

While pap smears are generally safe and well-tolerated, there are a few potential risks and complications associated with the procedure. These complications may include bleeding, cramping, infection, and discomfort. In addition, in rare cases, more severe complications such as uterine perforation or vaginal injury may occur. However, pap smears are an essential part of protecting women’s health. Therefore, one shall not avoid the test due to fear of potential complications.

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Difference between a pelvic exam and a Pap smear

A pelvic exam is a physical examination of a woman’s reproductive organs. A pap smear is a test that screens for cervical cancer. During a pelvic exam, the doctor inserts a speculum into the vagina to examine the vulva, vagina, and cervix. The healthcare provider performs the Pap smear by swabbing the cervix to collect cells that undergo analysis for signs of abnormalities. While the doctor can conduct a pelvic exam without a Pap smear, the Pap smear is an essential tool for the early detection of cervical cancer.



Follow-up tests after Pap smear

The doctors recommend follow-up tests after a pap smear for women with certain types of abnormal results. These tests can help confirm the Pap smear’s findings and determine the best course of treatment, if necessary. Follow-up tests after a pap smear may include a repeat Pap smear, pelvic exam, colposcopy, or biopsy.




Pap smears are an essential part of preventive healthcare for women. The test is quick, generally well tolerated, and can detect potentially serious conditions early. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether a pap smear suits you and how often you should have one done.






  1. Kitchen FL;Cox CM. (2021, October 21). Papanicolaou Smear. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29262086/
  2. Sachan PL;Singh M;Patel ML;Sachan R. (2018). A Study on Cervical Cancer Screening Using Pap Smear Test and Clinical Correlation. Asia-Pacific Journal of Oncology Nursing, 5(3). https://doi.org/10.4103/apjon.apjon_15_18
  3. Kitchen, F. L., & Cox, C. M. (2021, October 21). Papanicolaou Smear. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470165/

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