How To Prepare For Your Pap Smear

Regular pap smears can protect you from deadly cervical cancer.

Pap Smear on a medical test form
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Pap smears are an important screening tool for cervical cancer. All women should have annual Pap smears beginning at age 21, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Women 21 to 29 should get a Pap every two years, then annually from ages 30 to 64.

What Is a Pap Smear?

Pap is not a substance; rather, it's a short version of the name Papanicolaou--the doctor who invented the test. A pap smear is a scraping of cells from the cervix (the organ that protects the entrance to the uterus, or womb). The cells are "smeared" onto a slide and then viewed under a microscope. Trained technicians determine whether and to what degree cancerous cells are present.

You are at increased risk for cervical cancer if you fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Multiple sexual partners
  • HPV infection (herpes)
  • Chlamydia (a sexually transmitted infection)
  • Being a DES daughter (daughter of a woman who took a medicine called Diethylstilbestrol to avoid miscarriage)
  • Starting sexual intercourse at an early age
  • Weakened immune system
  • Previous cancer of the genital tract
  • Smoking
  • Having a family history of cervical cancer

Pap smears are quick and painless (for most women), but many women avoid them because they require a pelvic exam. They are, however, well worth the effort: cervical cancer is relatively common, and early detection can mean the difference between a cure and deadly cancer.

What Can Experts Learn from Pap Smears?

Pap smears provide information about whether a woman has or is likely to develop cervical cancer. To determine a woman's status, pathologists observe changes in cervical cells. Abnormalities may suggest that cancer is likely to develop or that cancer has already developed. In many cases, it is possible to detect and treat developing cancer before it has a chance to spread beyond the cervix.

How to Prepare for Your Cervical Exam

Ensuring that you get the most accurate Pap smear results means being properly prepared for your annual pelvic exam. Follow these simple tips for more accurate Pap smear results.

  1. Do not use vaginal douches for at least 3 days prior to your appointment.
  2. Refrain from sexual intercourse for 48 hours prior to your appointment.
  3. Do not use tampons, birth control foams or jellies for 48 hours prior to your appointment.


  1. Schedule your appointment about one or two weeks after you expect your period. If your period starts, call your provider to reschedule.
  2. Write down any questions you have for your doctor, and take your list to your appointment.
  3. Don't forget to inform your doctor about any infections, discharges, or pain you have experienced since your last examination. If you have had previous abnormal Pap smear results that she may not have on record, tell her about them. Also be certain to tell her if you know you've been exposed to HPV.
  4. If you receive abnormal results, get a detailed explanation about the meaning from your provider. If you don't understand, ask questions.
  5. Follow your physician's advice about any further diagnostic/treatment procedures. Remember, too, that it's always your right to ask for a second opinion.
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