A Pap smear (also called a smear test or medically called cervical cytology) looks for abnormal cells in your cervix. A Pap smear is predominantly used to screen for cervical cancer. Experts have established a schedule for when and how often you should have a Pap smear. Dr Nicolette Rivera, our general practitioner with a special interest in women’s health, weighs in on what you need to know about having a Pap smear and why it’s so important.
Who needs a Pap smear? You should start having Pap smears from the age of 25 unless you are HIV positive or exhibiting any concerning symptoms (if so, you would have been tested at a younger age). You should continue getting a Pap smear until age 65 unless abnormal cells were identified. In that case, regular Pap smears should continue beyond age 65. You do not require a Pap smear if you’ve had a hysterectomy. Who performs a Pap smear? Pap smears can be done by a trained nurse, general practitioner (GP) or gynaecologist. How often do you need a Pap smear, If your past test results were normal you should be tested every three years. More frequent smears may be recommended if:
you are at high risk of cervical cancer
you have had abnormal Pap test results in the past
you have a weakened immune system, or are HIV-positive
If you require more frequent smear speak to your practitioner to advise on the frequency of screening. What happens during a Pap smear, and does it hurt? A speculum is used to open the vagina, so the practitioner can use a small brush to scrape some cells from your cervix. It should not hurt, but it can be uncomfortable. There might be some light spotting for a day. If you’ve had a Pap smear, do you need any other types of screening/tests? A pap smear only looks at the cervix cells to find signs of cervical cancer and possibly infection. So it is not a full gynaecological check, as it cannot look at the uterus or ovaries, which can be done with a physical examination and sometimes an ultrasound. Does a Pap smear test for HPV? Why should you test for HPV? A smear doesn’t test for HPV, but you can request this on the same sample at an extra cost. There are many strains of HPV, some of which cause warts and some that are linked to cervical cancer. Even if you test positive for a high-risk strain of HPV, it is possible for your body to clear the infection. What do the results of a Pap smear mean? A pathologist will examine the cervix cells under the microscope. They are looking for cells that are starting to become cancerous. Abnormal cells are graded into levels: low-grade (LSIL) and high-grade (HSIL). Depending on the results and your HPV test, you may need to be referred for further testing and treatment of the abnormality. This will prevent it from becoming cancer. The bottom line: Don’t avoid having a Pap smear because you’re scared. It is a quick and painless procedure that can pick up very early signs of cervical cancer. Detecting cervical cancer early with a Pap smear gives you a greater chance at a cure. Click here to book your Pap smear with Dr Rivera