Your body is developed, and you’re now a full-blown adult. Congratulations!
Part of being an adult is of course – adulting. And when you have a vagina, that means checking in with your friendly local gynecologist every so often.
You’ve most likely already visited the gyno sometime after you started menstruating, you might have discussed birth control options, but now the real fun starts – pap smears!
What is a Pap Smear?
A pap smear, Papanicolaou test, pap test, or cervical smear is a routine test done on women and people with vaginas to check the health of their cervix.
Your cervix is a tiny doughnut-shaped organ that acts as the passageway between your uterus and vagina. It helps to keep sperm in – or out – of your body, let’s menstrual blood out, creates mucus that tells you when you’re ovulating, and helps maintain your vaginal flora.
Why Do I Need to Get a Pap Smear?
Pap smears are done to detect if any cancerous or precancerous cervical cells have developed.
When Do People Start Getting Pap Smears?
Providers typically recommend getting your first pap smear at age twenty-one and continuing to get them even up to age sixty-five.
You can advocate to get one when before age twenty-one if you have been having sex for some time.
It’s recommended to get a pap smear every three years before the age of thirty, and less often as you get older – as long as there are no signs of cervical cancer.
If you’re not sexually active, your chances of contracting HPV are minimal, but your provider will still recommend getting a pap smear, as there are other potential risk factors that can increase the chances of cervical cancer like smoking cigarettes and having a family history of it.
What Happens During a Pap Smear?
You’ve made it to your appointment, now what on earth should you be expecting? How does one obtain cervical cells?
We’ve got answers.
You will have a brief chat with your gyno about your sexual history, health, and any other questions you have. They will then palpate your breasts and abdomen to feel for any lumps or bumps.
Now the pap part.
They will have you put your legs up in foot rests, so they can get the right angle. Then use a lubricated speculum to be able to see up the vaginal canal to the cervix. Using a special stick or soft brush they will then collect cervical cells from the outside of your cervix.
These cells will then be sent to a lab for testing, and you will get your results within a couple of weeks in most cases.
The test itself only lasts for a few minutes at most.
How Can I Prepare for a Pap Smear?
I hope we didn’t scare you away yet, because there are ways to prepare to make this whole process easier on you.
- Try to schedule your appointment when you’re not on your period. It’s ok to have a pap test while bleeding, but you want to avoid it if possible.
- Come up with a list of questions to ask your gyno, which may be about any infections you’ve had or questions about birth control.
- You can take ibuprofen or another OTC pain reliever an hour before your appointment to help minimize discomfort.
- You can wear a panty liner, pad, or period panties in case you experience spotting after.
- Be sure to pee beforehand so that you don’t have the added discomfort of a full bladder. If you are getting a routine STI test as well, they may ask you for a urine sample at your appointment.
- Wear comfy clothes to make it easier on yourself. You probably won’t want to slide back into tight jeans after if you can avoid it.
- Be prepared to be honest with your gyno about your body and sexual history.
- Disclose any history of sexual assault. If your gyno makes you feel uncomfortable in any way or does not seem trauma-informed, you can ask to switch providers.
What if My Results are “Abnormal”?
While abnormal test results can seem scary, they are fairly common.
You will typically have an HPV test at the same time, which looks for DNA from HPV in your cervical cells.
HPV is an STI, and is nothing to be ashamed of. It typically goes away on its own. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and at least fourteen of these are high risk, or possibly cancer-causing. Oftentimes when providers perform a pap smear, they are also testing for HPV, called a “co-test”.
If your test is abnormal, then your doctor will ask you to test again in six months to a year to see if there are any cancerous HPV strains present.
In most cases, the cervical cells will regulate on their own, but you will probably have to have three back to back “normal tests” about a year apart until you are considered in the clear.
Tests can also come back as abnormal or unclear if you have a yeast infection, noncancerous cysts, or certain autoimmune diseases.
Things To Keep in Mind
It’s possible to have a “normal” test when cancerous cells are present, a “false negative”, as well as vice versa, “false positive”.
You will need a separate STI test, which will most likely come from a urine sample.
The HPV vaccine can protect against certain strains of HPV that may cause cervical cancer. You can ask your provider for more information.
Best of luck to you and your cervix, welcome to club pap smear!
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.