Wet Mounts and Vaginal Smears in Women's Health

A wet mount can be used to diagnose bacterial vaginosis.

Public Health Image Library; CDC/M. Rein

In a women's health exam, a wet mount is a slide made from a vaginal swab. It is also known as a vaginal smear. The purpose of a wet mount is to determine the cause of vaginitis. Wet mounts may also be a standard part of an annual gynecology exam.

To prepare a wet mount, your doctor will swab your vagina—usually during a pelvic exam—and roll the swab onto a slide. Some doctors may also allow you to do the swab yourself. Then your doctor can look at the wet mount under her office microscope to diagnose visible conditions such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis.

Wet mounts are not used to diagnose most common STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. However, these vaginal smears can give your doctor important insights about your reproductive health.

Clarifying The Difference Between Wet Mounts and Pap Smears

Wet mounts and Pap smears may both start with a swab, but they're very different types of tests. Wet mounts are read in the office setting by the physician. They are used to detect 3-4 specific types of infections, such as the ones mentioned above. Reading wet mounts requires training, but it is still relatively easy to perform.

Pap smears, on the other hand, aren't used to detect STDs. Instead, they're used to detect pre-cancerous cervical changes that are associated with HPV. They are a test for cancer and pre-cancerous conditions. In addition, although the cervical swabs are taken in the doctor's office, they are read by specially trained pathologists (or computers.) The cellular changes are much more subtle than the changes that doctors look for on a wet mount.

The other important difference between Pap smears and wet mounts is that Pap smears are swabs of the cervix. Wet mounts are swabs of the vagina. They're not only used to diagnose different types of conditions, but they also contain samples of cells from different places.

One thing that both wet mounts and Pap smears have in common, however, is that they're typically done alongside other STD tests. Neither test stands on its own for managing a woman's sexual and reproductive health.

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