Let’s face it, a Pap smear is something most women would prefer to skip. But if you don’t have them regularly, you miss out on a very valuable but simple test that’s aimed at identifying abnormal cellular growth in your cervix. Most importantly, a Pap smear gives your doctor the vital information they need to treat these changes before they develop into cancer.
These days, doctors can also run a test for human papillomavirus (HPV) at the same time. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that’s also the leading cause of cervical cancer.
With all of that in mind, the specialists at Boro Park OB/GYN are happy to explain what a Pap smear is and the vital role it plays in your overall health.
The purpose of a Pap smear
We use the Pap test to check for abnormalities in the tissue lining the cervix, which is the opening to your uterus. Abnormal cells in this region may indicate precancerous or cancerous changes that need close follow-up or further treatment to prevent cancer from developing or spreading.
At the same time as your Pap smear, if you fall into the at-risk category, we can also screen for an HPV infection.
Cervical cancer typically grows very slowly initially and is essentially symptom-free until it begins to spread into your uterus or other organs. With routine Pap smears, we can catch it early, before it has a chance to spread. Catching it early is when the cure rate is very high.
Who is at risk for HPV infection?
About 80 percent of the sexually active population of the United States has HPV, so we consider anyone who is sexually active now and did not receive the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active to be at risk.
HPV often lies dormant for many years before causing problems, so even if you’re in a long-term, monogamous relationship, we often recommend screening since two strains of the virus (types 16 and 18) are responsible for most cervical cancers.
Keep in mind, even if you’ve had the HPV vaccination, Paps smears are just as important because not all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
What is it like to have a Pap smear?
Pap smears are not considered painful, but they can be uncomfortable because of the nature of the test. We do our best, however, to help you feel at ease, and the test goes quickly. It’s normally conducted as part of the pelvic exam portion of your wellness physical.
You lie on your back on the exam table and place your feet in supports we call “stirrups.” Your doctor then inserts a device (speculum) into your vagina that gently opens your vaginal walls and provides access to the cervix.
We then take a small scraping or sample of your cervical cells that we preserve and send to a lab for evaluation. The cells are examined carefully for any abnormality, and the lab sends us a report within a few days.
You may notice mild discomfort as we obtain the sample or a slight vaginal discharge for a short time after the test, but you can expect to return to work or other routine activities after leaving the office.
What happens when Pap smear results are abnormal?
Most Pap smears are normal. And even if yours is abnormal, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. In fact, most abnormalities don’t indicate cancer.
Depending on the level of irregularity, your doctor may recommend a repeat test in several weeks to determine whether the abnormality is still present.
For more concerning results, your doctor might recommend further evaluation with a colposcopy, which is a painless study that provides a magnified view of your cervix and the abnormal tissue. Your doctor may also obtain another tissue sample, called a biopsy, at this point for a closer microscopic examination of the affected tissue.
If you’ve got more questions about why Pap smears are important, or you’re ready to schedule your next test, make an appointment today at Boro Park OB/GYN. We’re always happy to answer your questions and take pride in our welcoming environment and patient-focused approach to your health and well-being.