By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
A Pap smear test is very important to screen for abnormalities of cells in the cervix. Done regularly, it can help to recognize changes earlier and allows many women to seek treatment and avoid the progression to cervical cancer.
Although the procedure of the test is quick, many women feel uncomfortable about the process and it is often helpful to explain what is involved in the test before the test begins.
Prior to the Test
Whilst it is possible to conduct a pap smear when a woman is menstruating, it is usually easier to do at other times throughout the month. Therefore, the appointment when the patient does not expect to be menstruating is the best course of action.
Additionally, women should be advised to avoid having sexual intercourse or using spermicidal products within the 24 hours before the test. This helps to ensure that the test results are as accurate as possible, without the interference from other substances.
It is also important for women having a pap smear to be relaxed and at ease with the situation at hand. It can be helpful for the medical practitioner to explain what is going to happen so that she is prepared. Taking deep breaths to calm the body is also beneficial.
The actual Pap smear is quite quick, although many women find it uncomfortable or embarrassing.
Usually the woman is asked to lie on her back on the edge of the examination table, with her legs spread apart in the foot holds. This allows the medical practitioner to access the opening to the vagina, which is needed to conduct the test.
A speculum is then inserted into the vagina, which opens up the walls of the vagina and provides access to the cervix, where the cell sample needs to be taken.
The medical practitioner commonly uses a spatula to scrape a sample of cells from the outer opening of the cervix wall. Then an endocervical brush is used along the central opening of the cervix to collect cells from this area as well.
When the cell sample has been gathered, the speculum can then be removed and the procedure is finished. The same is then sent away to a laboratory to be tested for abnormalities and a follow up appointment is often scheduled to discuss the results.
When the cells have been analyzed, the results usually come back as normal, unclear or abnormal.
Normal means that there were no changes evident on the cell sample, in which case the woman should simply return for a Pap smear test in two years to test for further changes.
It is quite common for results to come back without a clear conclusion, which may be described as equivocal, inconclusive or ASC-US. This means that there are some changes, which could be due to HPV but may also be a result of life circumstances such as pregnancy, menopause or an infection in the area. If results are unclear, further tests to determine the HPV status may be required.
An abnormal result indicates that there were some changes evident in the cell sample. These changes are likely to be caused by HPV of varying severity, some of which may return to normal without treatment or they may progress to cancer.
Abnormal does not mean that the individual has cancer but, rather, intervention is usually needed to prevent cancer from occurring in the area.
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2015