A Pap smear is vital for a woman's health. A Pap smear can find precancers in your cervix so they can be removed before they have a chance to become cervical cancer. Follow Pap smear guidelines to know when to start this test, when to stop, and how often to get it.
A Pap smear is an important part of a cervical cancer screening.
What Is a Pap Smear?
A Pap test collects cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A health provider uses a piece of cotton, brush, or small wooden stick to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. We then view the cells under a microscope to see if they're abnormal.
Pap Smear Guidelines
These are general Pap smear guidelines. It's important to talk to your provider about a personalized cervical cancer screening plan.
When Should I Start Having Pap Smears?
Start having them at age 21. It doesn't matter whether or not you've had sex.
How Often Should I Have a Cervical Cancer Screening?
How often you get a screening depends mostly on your age. But talk to your provider about other reasons you may need one more often.
If you're 21 to 29, get a Pap test every 3 years.
If you're 30 to 65, you have 3 options for testing:
- Pap test plus an HPV test every 5 years
- Pap test alone every 3 years
- HPV testing alone every 5 years
When Can I Stop Getting Cervical Cancer Screenings?
You should stop once you turn age 66. But only stop if you're most recent test was in the past 5 years, and you:
- Don't have a history of moderate or severe abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, and
- Had either 3 negative Pap test results in a row, two negative HPV tests in a row, or two negative co-test (HPV plus Pap smear) results in a row within the past 10 years.
A negative Pap smear test result means there are no signs of abnormal cells.
Even if you've had a hysterectomy your cervix was removed, you may still need a Pap smear.
Different Types of Cervical Cancer Screening
We explain the HPV test and other types of cervical cancer screenings.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test
This lab test checks your DNA or RNA for certain types of HPV infection. We check cells from your cervix for signs of an HPV infection.
We can do this test with the sample of cells removed during a Pap test. We can also do this test if the results of a Pap smear show certain abnormal cervical cells.
The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina. The provider feels the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The provider will also do a similar inspection of your rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.
During this exam, the provider will also do a Pap smear.
Using a a spoon-shaped instrument (curette), we collect cells from your cervical canal. We check these samples under a microscope for signs of cancer. Sometimes we perform this test at the same time as a colposcopy.
This procedure uses a lighted, magnifying instrument called a colposcope. With this scope, providers check the vagina and cervix for abnormal cells. We'll then take tissue samples with a curette. Then we check the samples under a microscope for cancer.
If we find abnormal cells in a Pap test, we may do a biopsy. We'll cut a small tissue sample from your cervix. We then have a pathologist check the sample for cancer.
We can do two types of biopsy. You can have a small tissue sample taken in your doctor's office. If we need to take a larger sample, you'll need to stay at the hospital.
If you don't have health insurance and are low income, you can get a FREE Pap test. It's one of 3 important cancer screenings offered through Every Woman's Life.
You can get a free Pap test, breast exam, and mammogram. The program covers residents of Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Orange, and the City of Charlottesville.
Qualifying for the program depends on income, age, and other factors. Learn more.