A Pap screening, also called a Pap smear, is a screening used to check for abnormalities in a woman’s cervix (the opening of the uterus). Abnormalities in the cells are most often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and typically clears on its own. However, if HPV does not clear up and is left untreated, cervical cancer can develop. This is why it is important that women receive routine Pap screenings.

What happens during a Pap screening?

Pap screenings are quick tests performed by a medical provider. During the screening, a sample of cells is taken from the cervix and sent to a lab to look for abnormal cell growth. To collect this sample, the provider will use a special tool called a speculum that helps to open the vaginal walls and provide access to the cervix. Then a small tool that often looks like a spatula or brush is used to gently scrape the cervix to gather the sample.

Some women experience slight discomfort during their Pap screening. It is normal to experience mild cramping and light bleeding following your screening. Contact your medical provider if you experience pain or bleeding for longer than one day after your screening.

Who needs to receive a Pap screening?

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women should begin getting Pap screenings at age 21 and continue to receive one every three years until the age of 30. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should get both a Pap screen and an HPV screening every five years.

Women over the age of 65 may not need to be screened and should speak with their medical provider about the best option for them.

These screening guidelines do not apply if a woman is experiencing abnormal bleeding between periods or pain during urination or sex. If you are experiencing these symptoms, get in touch with your medical provider as soon as possible so you can be screened.

What happens if a Pap screening comes back abnormal?

Cervical cancer is not the only reason a Pap screening would come back as abnormal. One of the most common causes of an abnormal screening is atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS). ASCUS may be a sign of an infection caused by non-cancer-causing HPV or a yeast infection. It may also be a sign of low hormone levels, inflammation or a non-cancerous growth such as a cyst or polyp.

If a Pap screening comes back as abnormal, the medical provider who performed the screening may follow up with another Pap screening or HPV screen to determine the cause of the results.

Are Pap screenings the only way to lower the risk of cervical cancer?

While routine Pap screenings are an important part of detecting and treating cervical cancer, individuals can decrease their risk of developing cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is unique because it is the only cancer that can be prevented with a vaccination.

The HPV vaccine helps protect the body from HPV, which helps prevent cervical cancer. If a vaccinated individual comes in contact with HPV, their body will work to prevent the virus from infecting the cells. All children ages 9 to 14 should get the HPV vaccine. While the vaccine can be given to individuals up to age 26, the younger the vaccine is administered, the stronger the protection against the virus.

Do vaccinated individuals need to be screened?

Yes. The HPV vaccine provides protection against the virus, but Pap screenings are used to be sure that a woman’s cervix is healthy. If you need to be screened or are interested in getting your child the HPV vaccination, please schedule an appointment with HealthLinc! All women who receive their annual women’s wellness checkup on or before January 31, 2022, will be entered into a drawing to win a $50 gift certificate.