What is a Pap Smear?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A pap smear or smear test is a diagnostic screening for cervical cancer, a serious cancer which kills thousands of women around the world every year. The screening contributes to early cancer detection, increasing the likelihood that a woman will catch her cancer early, thus improving her prognosis. Pap smears are routinely performed as part of an annual exam, which is recommended for all women from their teens to the end stages of their lives.

A gynecologist helps women lead healthy lives through regular check-ups and preventative care.
A gynecologist helps women lead healthy lives through regular check-ups and preventative care.

To perform a pap smear, a physician takes a small sample of cells from the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. These cells are stained and studied under a microscope to look for abnormalities which characterize the development of cancerous growth. Abnormalities indicate that some sort of action needs to be taken, such as removing a pre-cancerous region of the cervix to prevent the onset of a full-blown cancer.

A pap smear is a diagnostic tool used to detect early signs of cervical cancer.
A pap smear is a diagnostic tool used to detect early signs of cervical cancer.

A pap smear can be uncomfortable, as can pelvic exams in general. However, the discomfort is outweighed by the benefits of routine cancer screening and early detection. In regions of the world where women receive annual exams on a regular basis, women's health in general tends to be better, with a longer life expectancy for women thanks to a focus on preventative care. Women should be aware that pap smears only screen for cervical cancers, and that screening for other cancers requires different diagnostic tests.

The patient's gynecologist may order additional tests to screen for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, the most common cause of cervical cancer.
The patient's gynecologist may order additional tests to screen for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, the most common cause of cervical cancer.

The test is named for George Papanicolaou, an American doctor who published a paper in 1941 discussing his early work on the exam. By the 1980s, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was recommending annual pap smears for all women. Along with other routine medical screening, a pap smear ensures that women maintain their fertility and general health. A pap smear may identify other underlying medical issues which are cause for concern in addition to cervical cancer.

Women with ovarian and cervical cancer have a much better chance of survival if the cancer is detected early.
Women with ovarian and cervical cancer have a much better chance of survival if the cancer is detected early.

Some people may be at greater risk for cervical cancer than others, such as women who have been infected with the human papilloma virus. It is an excellent idea to discuss conditions such as cancer with your doctor, as he or she may identify risk markers such as genetic factors which suggest that you should be more carefully monitored than other patients. You may also want to take advantage of your annual exam as an opportunity to discuss other women's health issues with your doctor, such as family planning and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

Annual exams provide women with an opportunity to discuss issues such as family planning and sexually transmitted infections with their doctor.
Annual exams provide women with an opportunity to discuss issues such as family planning and sexually transmitted infections with their doctor.
Early detection of cell abnormalities can save a woman's life.
Early detection of cell abnormalities can save a woman's life.
Specialized tools are used to scrape cells from the cervix during a pap smear.
Specialized tools are used to scrape cells from the cervix during a pap smear.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon43975

Women also need to remember that, when they have a pap smear scheduled, to refrain from sex for at least 48 hours before the test. This helps ensure accurate results. It's also a good idea to carry a pantiliner or minipad, in case the lubricating jelly used during the test leaks later on. A little icky, perhaps, but a practical measure.

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