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Pap test

Show Alternative Names
Papanicolaou test
Pap smear
Cervical cancer screening - Pap test
Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia - Pap
CIN - Pap
Precancerous changes of the cervix - Pap
Cervical cancer - Pap
Squamous intraepithelial lesion - Pap
LSIL - Pap
HSIL - Pap
Low-grade Pap
High-grade Pap
Carcinoma in situ - Pap
CIS - Pap
ASCUS - Pap
Atypical glandular cells - Pap
AGUS - Pap
Atypical squamous cells - Pap
HPV - Pap
Human papilloma virus - Pap cervix - Pap
Colposcopy - Pap

The Pap test checks for cervical cancer. Cells scraped from the opening of the cervix are examined under a microscope. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.

This test is sometimes called a Pap smear.

How the Test is Performed

You lie on a table and place your feet in stirrups. Your health care provider gently places an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to open it slightly. This allows the provider to see inside the vagina and cervix.

Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area. The sample of cells is sent to a lab for examination.

Video Transcript

Pap smear - Animation

If you're a woman 21 or over, it's important to begin getting regular pelvic examinations to take charge of your health. An important part of this pelvic exam may include a test, called a Pap smear, to detect the often life-threatening disease, cervical cancer, even before it starts. And here's the key, cervical cells become abnormal years before they turn to cancer. That gives an excellent window of opportunity. So, what is a Pap smear? A Pap smear is a microscopic examination of cells scraped from the opening of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, or womb, that opens at the top of the vagina. The test looks for cervical cancer or abnormal cells. Most cervical cancers can be found, and treated early, or even before they start, if women have routine Pap smears and pelvic examinations. For this test, you will lie on a table and place your feet in stirrups. The doctor will insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina and open it slightly to see inside the vaginal canal. Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area, and sent to a lab for examination. When a Pap smear shows abnormal changes, you will need further testing. The next step depends on the results of the Pap smear, and on your previous history of Pap smears, and risk factors you may have for cervical cancer. You may need a biopsy using a light and a low-powered microscope, called colposcopy. You may also need a test to check for infection with human papilloma virus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, the doctor will order more tests to determine how you should be treated, and how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. Treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor, your age and general health, and your desire to have children in the future. Early cervical cancer can be treated with surgery to remove the abnormal tissue, or freeze abnormal cells, or burn abnormal tissue. Treatment for more advanced cervical cancer may include radical hysterectomy, removal of the uterus and much of the surrounding tissue, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina. Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or if cancer returns. The woman may also have chemotherapy to kill the cancer if the cervical cancer's advanced. The Pap smear test is not 100% accurate and cervical cancer may be missed in a small number of cases. Fortunately, cervical cancer develops very slowly in most women and follow-up Pap smears should identify worrisome changes in plenty of time for treatment. Make sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you are taking. Some, including estrogen and progestins, may affect the result of your Pap smear. Pap smears can be a wonderful, life saving tool.

How to Prepare for the Test

Tell your provider about all the medicines you are taking. Some birth control pills that contain estrogen or progestin may affect test results.

Also tell your provider if you:

  • Have had an abnormal Pap test
  • Might be pregnant

DO NOT do the following for 24 hours before the test:

  • Douche (douching should never be done)
  • Have intercourse
  • Use tampons

Try not to schedule your Pap test while you have your period (are menstruating). Blood may make the Pap test results less accurate. If you are having unexpected bleeding, do not cancel your exam. Your provider will determine if the Pap test can still be done.

Empty your bladder just before the test.

How the Test will Feel

A Pap test causes little to no discomfort for most women. It can cause some discomfort, similar to menstrual cramps. You may also feel some pressure during the exam.

You may bleed a little bit after the test.

Why the Test is Performed

The Pap test is a screening test for cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers can be detected early if a woman has routine Pap tests.

Screening should start at age 21.

After the first test:

  • You should have a Pap test every 3 years to check for cervical cancer.
  • If you are over age 30 and you also have HPV testing done, and both the Pap test and HPV test are normal, you can be tested every 5 years. HPV (human papillomavirus) is a virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer.
  • Most women can stop having Pap tests after age 65 to 70 as long as they have had 3 negative tests within the past 10 years.

You may not need to have a Pap test if you have had a total hysterectomy (uterus and cervix removed) and have not had an abnormal Pap test, cervical cancer, or other pelvic cancer. Discuss this with your provider.

Normal Results

A normal result means there are no abnormal cells present. The Pap test is not 100% accurate. Cervical cancer may be missed in a small number of cases. Most of the time, cervical cancer develops very slowly, and follow-up Pap tests should find any changes in time for treatment.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Abnormal results are grouped as follows:

ASCUS or AGUS:

  • This result means there are atypical cells, but it is uncertain or unclear what these changes mean.
  • The changes may be due to HPV.
  • They may be due to inflammation of unknown cause.
  • They may be due to lack of estrogen as occurs in menopause.
  • They may also mean there are changes that may lead to cancer.
  • These cells could be precancerous and they could be coming from the outside of the cervix or inside the uterus.

LOW-GRADE DYSPLASIA (LSIL) OR HIGH-GRADE DYSPLASIA (HSIL):

  • This means changes that may lead to cancer are present.
  • The risk of progression to cervical cancer is greater with HSIL.

CARCINOMA IN SITU (CIS):

  • This result most often means the abnormal changes are likely to lead to cervical cancer if not treated

ATYPICAL SQUAMOUS CELLS (ASC):

  • Abnormal changes have been found and may be HSIL

ATYPICAL GLANDULAR CELLS (AGC):

  • Cell changes that may lead to cancer are seen in the upper part of the cervical canal or inside the uterus.

When a Pap test shows abnormal changes, further testing or follow-up is needed. The next step depends on the results of the Pap test, your previous history of Pap tests, and risk factors you may have for cervical cancer.

For minor cell changes, providers will recommend another Pap test or repeat HPV testing in 6 to 12 months.

Follow-up testing or treatment may include:

  • Colposcopy-directed biopsy -- Colposcopy is a procedure in which the cervix is magnified with a binocular like tool called a colposcope. Small biopsies are often obtained during this procedure to determine the extent of the problem.
  • An HPV test to check for the presence of the HPV virus types most likely to cause cancer.
  • Cervix cryosurgery.
  • Cone biopsy.

Text only

Review Date: 1/1/2020

Reviewed By

John D. Jacobson, MD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda Center for Fertility, Loma Linda, CA. Internal review and update on 06/03/2021 by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

References

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Practice bulletin no. 157: cervical cancer screening and prevention. Obstet Gynecol. 2016;127(1):e1-e20. PMID: 26695583 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26695583/.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website. Practice advisory: cervical cancer screening (update). August 29, 2018. www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Practice-Advisories/Practice-Advisory-Cervical-Cancer-Screening-Update. Published August 29, 2018. Reaffirmed November 8, 2019. Accessed March 17, 2020.

Fontham ETH, Wolf AMD, Church TR, Etzioni R, Flowers CR, Herzig A, Guerra CE, Oeffinger KC, Shih YT, Walter LC, Kim JJ, Andrews KS, DeSantis CE, Fedewa SA, Manassaram-Baptiste D, Saslow D, Wender RC, Smith RA. Cervical cancer screening for individuals at average risk: 2020 guideline update from the American Cancer Society. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020;70(5):321-346. PMID: 32729638 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32729638/.

Newkirk GR. Pap smear and related techniques for cervical cancer screening. In: Fowler GC, ed. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 120.

Perkins RB, Guido RS, Castle PE, Chelmow D, Einstein MH, Garcia F, Huh WK, Kim JJ, Moscicki AB, Nayar R, Saraiya M, Sawaya GF, Wentzensen N, Schiffman M; 2019 ASCCP Risk-Based Management Consensus Guidelines Committee. 2019 ASCCP Risk-Based Management Consensus Guidelines for Abnormal Cervical Cancer Screening Tests and Cancer Precursors. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2020;24(2):102-131. PMID: 32243307 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32243307/.

Salcedo MP, Baker ES, Schmeler KM. Intraepithelial neoplasia of the lower genital tract (cervix, vagina, vulva): etiology, screening, diagnosis, management. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 28.

US Preventive Services Task Force website. Final recommendation statement. Cervical cancer: screening. www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/cervical-cancer-screening. Updated August 21, 2018. Accessed June 3, 2021.

Disclaimer

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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Pap smear

Pap smear

Animation

Female reproductive anatomy - Illustration Thumbnail

Female reproductive anatomy

External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

Illustration

Pap smear - Illustration Thumbnail

Pap smear

A Pap test is a simple, relatively inexpensive procedure that can easily detect cancerous or precancerous conditions.

Illustration

Uterus - Illustration Thumbnail

Uterus

The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

Illustration

Cervical erosion - Illustration Thumbnail

Cervical erosion

Cervical erosion occurs when the surface of the cervix is replaced with inflamed tissue from the cervical canal. The condition may be caused by trauma, infection or chemicals.

Illustration

Pap smear

Pap smear

Animation

Female reproductive anatomy - Illustration Thumbnail

Female reproductive anatomy

External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

Illustration

Pap smear - Illustration Thumbnail

Pap smear

A Pap test is a simple, relatively inexpensive procedure that can easily detect cancerous or precancerous conditions.

Illustration

Uterus - Illustration Thumbnail

Uterus

The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

Illustration

Cervical erosion - Illustration Thumbnail

Cervical erosion

Cervical erosion occurs when the surface of the cervix is replaced with inflamed tissue from the cervical canal. The condition may be caused by trauma, infection or chemicals.

Illustration

 

Pap smear - Animation

If you're a woman 21 or over, it's important to begin getting regular pelvic examinations to take charge of your health. An important part of this pelvic exam may include a test, called a Pap smear, to detect the often life-threatening disease, cervical cancer, even before it starts. And here's the key, cervical cells become abnormal years before they turn to cancer. That gives an excellent window of opportunity.

So, what is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a microscopic examination of cells scraped from the opening of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, or womb, that opens at the top of the vagina. The test looks for cervical cancer or abnormal cells. Most cervical cancers can be found, and treated early, or even before they start, if women have routine Pap smears and pelvic examinations.

For this test, you will lie on a table and place your feet in stirrups. The doctor will insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina and open it slightly to see inside the vaginal canal. Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area, and sent to a lab for examination.

When a Pap smear shows abnormal changes, you will need further testing. The next step depends on the results of the Pap smear, and on your previous history of Pap smears, and risk factors you may have for cervical cancer. You may need a biopsy using a light and a low-powered microscope, called colposcopy. You may also need a test to check for infection with human papilloma virus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, the doctor will order more tests to determine how you should be treated, and how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. Treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor, your age and general health, and your desire to have children in the future.

Early cervical cancer can be treated with surgery to remove the abnormal tissue, or freeze abnormal cells, or burn abnormal tissue. Treatment for more advanced cervical cancer may include radical hysterectomy, removal of the uterus and much of the surrounding tissue, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina. Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or if cancer returns. The woman may also have chemotherapy to kill the cancer if the cervical cancer's advanced.

The Pap smear test is not 100% accurate and cervical cancer may be missed in a small number of cases. Fortunately, cervical cancer develops very slowly in most women and follow-up Pap smears should identify worrisome changes in plenty of time for treatment. Make sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you are taking. Some, including estrogen and progestins, may affect the result of your Pap smear.

Pap smears can be a wonderful, life saving tool.

 

Pap smear - Animation

If you're a woman 21 or over, it's important to begin getting regular pelvic examinations to take charge of your health. An important part of this pelvic exam may include a test, called a Pap smear, to detect the often life-threatening disease, cervical cancer, even before it starts. And here's the key, cervical cells become abnormal years before they turn to cancer. That gives an excellent window of opportunity.

So, what is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a microscopic examination of cells scraped from the opening of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus, or womb, that opens at the top of the vagina. The test looks for cervical cancer or abnormal cells. Most cervical cancers can be found, and treated early, or even before they start, if women have routine Pap smears and pelvic examinations.

For this test, you will lie on a table and place your feet in stirrups. The doctor will insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina and open it slightly to see inside the vaginal canal. Cells are gently scraped from the cervix area, and sent to a lab for examination.

When a Pap smear shows abnormal changes, you will need further testing. The next step depends on the results of the Pap smear, and on your previous history of Pap smears, and risk factors you may have for cervical cancer. You may need a biopsy using a light and a low-powered microscope, called colposcopy. You may also need a test to check for infection with human papilloma virus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, the doctor will order more tests to determine how you should be treated, and how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging. Treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor, your age and general health, and your desire to have children in the future.

Early cervical cancer can be treated with surgery to remove the abnormal tissue, or freeze abnormal cells, or burn abnormal tissue. Treatment for more advanced cervical cancer may include radical hysterectomy, removal of the uterus and much of the surrounding tissue, including lymph nodes and the upper part of the vagina. Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pelvis, or if cancer returns. The woman may also have chemotherapy to kill the cancer if the cervical cancer's advanced.

The Pap smear test is not 100% accurate and cervical cancer may be missed in a small number of cases. Fortunately, cervical cancer develops very slowly in most women and follow-up Pap smears should identify worrisome changes in plenty of time for treatment. Make sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you are taking. Some, including estrogen and progestins, may affect the result of your Pap smear.

Pap smears can be a wonderful, life saving tool.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 

 
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