UNDERSTANDING PAP SMEARS

From an early age, women around the country are bombarded with “female” health information. One of the topics often discussed is having a yearly pap smear. Even commercials have gotten in on the pap smear bandwagon. You will probably catch a reference to having a pap smear watching your favorite prime time show.

While most women have heard the words pap smear, many still do not know what the procedure is or what the pap smear is used for. This article is intended to explain the pap smear procedure and the health and wellness benefits gained from having a pap smear.

WHAT IS A PAP SMEAR?

A pap smear is a procedure in which the health care provider takes sample cells from a woman’s cervix, the lower part of the uterus. The patient is asked to disrobe and don the drape or exam gown. The patient is then instructed to lay back on the exam table with their feet in the stirrups which are out to the sides of the exam table.

The health care provider will insert a speculum into the patient’s vagina. The speculum is a metal tool designed to safely open the vagina. The health care provider then uses a sterile cotton brush, swab, or spatula to clean the cervix. The cotton brush (or other used instrument) is then rubbed on a glass slide and sent to the lab to be analyzed.

Do not have sex 24 hours before a scheduled pap smear procedure. Do not douche or use a feminine deodorant either. These foreign materials could affect the pap smear test results. Plan your pap smear for a time when you are not menstruating. Be prepared to give complete answers to your gynecological assessment which will be done in conjunction with the pap smear test.

WHEN SHOULD WOMEN HAVE PAP SMEARS?

Every woman should have a pap smear when she first begins having sex or by the age 18. She should continue to have yearly pap smears until she has had at least 3 consecutive normal tests. After this, she should have a pap smear at least once every 3 years, unless advised otherwise by the health care provider. Every woman should continue to have pap smears though out her lifetime. The frequency of pap smears will vary from woman to woman depending on her personal history. It is very important for every individual to effectively manage her gynecological health care.

WHAT IS THE PAP SMEAR SAMPLE ANALYZED FOR?

The pap smear test slides are evaluated for change in the cervical cells. A series of specific changes are made in cervical cells before cancer begins. The lab technicians will thoroughly check the cells to determine their current status.

WHAT DO THE PAP SMEAR RESULTS MEAN?

A negative pap smear result means that the results are normal while a positive result means that the results are abnormal. A positive pap smear result can be an indication that the cervix is affected by a number of things including inflammation, very early signs of cancer, more serious signs of cancer, and advanced cancer. It usually takes 2 to 3 weeks to receive the pap smear test results. If the pap smear test results are positive, the health care provider may order an additional pap smear or a biopsy of the cervix.

WHAT INCREASES THE RISK OF CERVICAL CANCER?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the items listed below greatly increase the risk of cervical cancer:

Starting to have sex early (before age 20)
Having had many sexual partners
Being infected with an STD or having had a sex partner who has an STD
Smoking
Using birth control pills and/or giving birth to many children when also infected with HPV

Pap smears are a valuable tool in the fight for gynecological health. It is up to the individual to ensure that pap smears are done regularly and that procedures and practices are not just heard, but understood.

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