Pap tests find abnormal cell changes in your cervix. How often you get a Pap test depends on your age, medical history, and the results of your last Pap or HPV tests.
What happens during a Pap test?
Pap tests, sometimes called Pap smears, are very important tests for finding abnormal cells on your cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. Pap tests find cell changes caused by HPV, but they don't detect HPV itself.
Pap tests may be part of your regular check up, pelvic exam or well-woman exam. During a Pap test, your doctor or nurse puts a metal or plastic speculum into your vagina. The speculum opens up to separate the walls of your vagina so that they can get to your cervix. Then they use a small sampler — a tiny spatula or brush — to gently collect cells from your cervix. The cells are sent to a lab to be tested.
Pap tests only take a few minutes. They shouldn't hurt, but you might feel some discomfort or pressure when your doctor or nurse opens the speculum inside you. You might also feel a light scratching when they take cells from your cervix.
Do I need a Pap test?
You should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21. How often you get tested after that depends on your age, medical history, and the results of your last Pap or HPV tests. In general:
If you’re 21–29 years old, get a Pap test once every 3 years (starting at age 25, your doctor may switch to an HPV test - either one is fine).
If you’re 30–65 years old, get a Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) once every 5 years, or just a Pap test or HPV test every 3 years.
If you’re older than 65, you may not need Pap tests anymore.
You may need to get tested more often if you’ve had problems with your cervix before, have a weak immune system, or if your mother took a medicine called DES while she was pregnant with you. Your doctor or nurse will tell you which tests you need and how often you should get them.
What if I have an abnormal Pap test?
If your Pap test results are abnormal, don’t panic. It's pretty common to have unclear or abnormal Pap test results. Most of the time, it doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer.
An unclear test result means that your cervical cells look like they could be abnormal. But it isn’t clear if it’s related to HPV or something else. Unclear results are also called equivocal, inconclusive, or ASC-US.
An abnormal Pap test result means that there are abnormal cell changes on your cervix. This doesn’t mean that you definitely have cervical cancer. The changes may be minor (low-grade) or serious (high-grade). The more serious changes are often called precancerous because they aren’t cancer yet but can turn into it over time.
If you have an unclear or abnormal Pap test result, you made need further tests and/or treatment including:
Another Pap test
An HPV test: a test that looks for high-risk types of the virus that can cause precancerous cells
A colposcopy: a special exam to look more closely at your cervix to see if there are precancerous cells.
Where can I go for a Pap test?
You can get a Pap test at your doctor or nurse’s office, a community health clinic, the health department, or your local Planned Parenthood health center.