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What You Need to Know About Your Pap Smear

For most women, talking or even thinking about getting their Pap smear is not one of their favorite activities. However, it’s a vitally important test for women’s health.

The Pap smear is a screening test designed to look for cervical cancer. When your OB/GYN conducts a Pap smear, they’re looking for abnormal cells on the cervix that can be cancerous or pre-cancerous.

“The development of the Pap smear has significantly reduced the number of cases of cervical cancer in the United States,” said Jacqueline Kohl, MD, OB/GYN Faculty Associate of Abington - Jefferson and a consultant in Gynecology and Gynecologic Surgery for the Hanjani Institute of Gynecologic Oncology. “By screening women, we can find and treat abnormalities before they could become cancer.”

A Pap smear is done during a pelvic exam. You doctor uses a speculum to widen the opening of the vagina so that the cervix and vagina can be examined. They then use a small plastic tool and a brush to collect cells from your cervix. This isn’t painful, but it might be uncomfortable. It doesn’t take long, and then the cells are sent to a lab for testing. You should get results back in about a week.

It’s recommended that women start getting Pap smears at the age of 21. For women with normal results, the test should be repeated every three years until age 30. After age 30, your doctor will test for HPV at the same time as a Pap smear. If both tests come back as normal, then the test will be repeated every five years. Doctors usually stop doing Pap smears at age 65, as long as everything has been normal.

However, a Pap smear that comes back as “abnormal” is not all that unusual. Dr. Kohl says it is not a reason to panic.

“These abnormalities may not be worrisome at all,” she said. “When you have an abnormal Pap smear, it is really important to get appropriate follow-up and any necessary treatments. Having an abnormal Pap smear is very common, so that alone is not a reason to be very worried as long as you follow up.”

Dr. Kohl says that the HPV virus is the primary cause of cervical cancers, and that HPV is very common in young women – an estimated 25 percent of women between the ages of 21 and 24 have it.

“Consistent condom use may reduce the transmission of HPV,” said Dr. Kohl. “The HPV vaccine has also reduced HPV infections.”

She recommends that women who smoke should quit, as smoking has been linked to abnormal Pap smears, and if there are pre-cancerous cells, it can cause them to worsen more quickly.

Dr. Kohl also suggests that you be sure to talk to your doctor every time you have a Pap smear or are scheduled to have one, since guidelines have changed over the last few years as more is learned, and they may continue to change.

To access an Abington - Jefferson Health OB/GYN, please call 215-481-MEDI (6334) or search our online directory.

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