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You may have heard of a Pap test, and how it’s really important to go to the doctor and get them. But, many people don’t know what a Pap test is, what happens during a Pap test or why it’s so important to get one. There are also plenty of misconceptions around how often to get them or who needs to get them. Here’s the quick explanation about Pap tests and why they are so crucial to staying healthy:

What is a Pap test?

Also known as a Pap smear or a cervical smear, a Pap test is a type of cervical cancer screening. The screening involves finding abnormal cells on the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer and only takes a few minutes. To conduct the test, the doctor or nurse will use a speculum to separate the walls of the vagina so they can get to the cervix. Then, using a tiny spatula, brush or cotton swab, they’ll collect cells from the cervix. Lastly, the cells are sent to a lab for testing.

What isn’t a Pap test?

A Pap test IS NOT:

  • An STD/STI test -

  • A vaginal exam

  • A pelvic exam

  • A speculum exam

  • An ovarian cancer screening

If you’ve recently had any of the above, you still might need a Pap test.

When do I need get a Pap test?

If you’re 21 and over, and have a cervix, you should start getting regular Pap tests. (Not sure if you have a cervix or what a cervix is? Read our cervical health 101 post to find out.)

How often you get tested 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.

  • If you’re under 21, you don’t need to get a Pap test.

  • Unless your doctor says otherwise, you don’t need a Pap test every year (the annual wellness exam is the yearly preventive visit FYI).

  • If you’ve had children, all of the above still applies. Having children does not exempt you from Pap tests or annual wellness exams.

You may need to get tested more often if you’ve had problems with your cervix before or have a weak immune system. If you’re not sure if you need more tests, your doctor or nurse can help and answer your questions.

What if I’m not sure if I need a Pap test?

If you’re not sure if you need a Pap test, the best thing to do is to contact your health care provider. They can tell you when your last Pap test took place or if you’re due for your next one.

If you don’t have a health care provider, or if you recently changed providers, then you’re welcome to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood. Not only do we do Pap tests, but you can bring your previous provider’s information with you to your appointment. We’ll double check with them to see if you’re due for a Pap test. This way, you only get a Pap test if you need one.

Dawn Bady is a health center manager at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

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