Does a Pap Smear Hurt? What Is It Like to Get One?

Kathy Griffin Gets Public Pap Smear On Camera To Promote Women's Health
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Question: Does a Pap Smear Hurt? 

A Pap smear, or Pap test, looks for the early signs of cervical cancer. (A similar test is also used for anal cancer.)

To perform a Pap test, a gynecologist inserts a speculum into the vagina. The speculum is then opened so that the doctor can see the cervix. At that point, the doctor uses a swab to brush some cells from the cervix. The cells are then examined for abnormalities.

The Pap smear is actually quite a quick test. It generally isn't painful, although it can cause some physical discomfort for some people. That's particularly true for people who have a very sensitive cervix. Taking the sample can feel like a little scrape or pinch. The speculum can also be uncomfortable, but if it is tell your doctor. Smaller sizes sometimes make a big difference. 

Current Pap smear guidelines suggest that young women should get a Pap test every other year - beginning three years after they start having sex. Pap smears are linked to sexual activity because HPV is thought to cause the vast majority of cervical cancers. However, Pap smears are not STD tests. They only detect pre-cancerous cervical changes. They don't detect other STDs. 

Question: What is a Pap Smear Like?

Some women have strongly negative feelings about the Pap smear. However, most women find it to be no big deal. In the Spring of 2010, the comedian Kathy Griffin even had a Pap smear on camera to raise awareness of the importance of preventative medicine for women's health! Still, it can be pretty frightening going for your first Pap smear. That's particularly true if you've heard scary stories from your friends. That's why I was so excited to read the following description of the experience from a reader. Bellaluna221 is a woman of 25 who had been terrified about going to get her first Pap smear. I thought her story spoke  clearly to the experience of the many young women who are nervous about visiting the gynecologist for a pelvic exam. Therefore, I asked her if I could share it here with you.

I'd like to offer my experience for other women who, like me, have extremely high levels of anxiety/panic attacks, in hopes that this will help you gain a little bit of strength to go get it done! I will NOT use the word "uncomfortable" because it is so vague. What is uncomfortable? What level of non-comfort is it? Bah. I hate the word. So I may be graphic, and will try to use other, more descriptive words to help aid in the explanation of what getting a pap smear/exam feels like.

I first and foremost let my doctor know it was my first.time.ever getting this exam done. Also, I let her know how anxious I was (I'm pretty sure she could tell... since I was crying.) She decided to use the smallest speculum she had, and told me that we could start slow, and if it becomes too stressful, we could stop.

She had me undress, and put on a paper gown, and had me lay back. I then placed my feet in the stirrups, and was instructed to slide down to where my butt was on the edge of the table. My doctor told me to focus on my knees, and keep them relaxed and open as much as possible. I did for about a couple of seconds. I don't like focusing on my knees. lol I focused on my hands that were folded on my chest... i started counting... deep breathing... at one point I started humming etc.

She let me know she was getting the speculum lubed up, and she said "take in a deep breath.... aaaand let it out" and on my exhale, she slowly slid the speculum inside of me. It felt "full" being stuffed with a dildo, or maybe 3 fingers. The speculum makes a *click* noise (the plastic ones do anyway) as she opened it up, to better see my cervix. This doesn't hurt at all - they don't pry you open like the grand canyon - it's just 1, or 2 *clicks* enough to see inside, and put their small, skinny swabs down. I have a high cervix, so she had to reposition the speculum and do it again... once again, "take in a deep breath... and let it out." same feeling as before: full. The speculum has smooth edges, so there's no ripping/scratching/tearing, it's a very slick/smooth ride in. Then she *clicked* it open - this didn't feel like anything, it was just a noise.

Then she told me that she was going to be taking a sample of my cells, and at first I felt a poke - a dull poke. As if you take a Q-Tip and poked someone's arm with it.. really. It was nothing. Then I felt a small stab/pinch - I think she used the mascara-looking-wand for this. Then she removed the speculum - which felt like RELIEF. A slow, gradual relief of the "fullness" feeling. Again, the speculum is smooth, so it nicely slid out with no problems.

This all took about 2 minutes.

Then she inserted 2 fingers into me and pressed on my stomach - this feels like nothing (especially if you're sexually active.) It doesn't feel as "full" as the speculum, as the doctor doesn't have her fingers as deep inside as was the speculum.

This took about 30 seconds.

And that was it.


So "uncomfortable" for me, was the feeling of being stuffed, and a small pinch. I had no qualms about being spread eagle in front of a doctor - they've seen worse. Plus, if you don't feel comfortable being naked around your doctor, maybe you should consider another doctor. Your doctor is supposed to make you feel at ease, safe, and welcome. Even if you're scared ****** (like i was) your doctor should still be able to put you at ease. And mine did! She was calm, friendly, reassuring, and gentle.

A lot of my anxiety came down to the fact that I was letting someone else do something to me, and I couldn't see it. I think that's what a lot of women are afraid of - laying back, and letting the doctor have full control. I hate needles, and have a greatly exaggerated fear, completely irrational of doctors (not dentists though.. weird.) so every medical procedure is a big ordeal for me.

I would compare it to getting a strep test. Y'know, where you say "AHHHH" and they swab the back of your throat? That only takes a second - and while it's not pleasant, it barely feels like anything at all.. and before you can even react to it, it's over with. And then you feel silly for being afraid of it in the first place.

I hope my explanation was detailed enough, and I hope it helps at least a couple of women know that, when it comes to panic and anxiety about these things, you're not alone!