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PAP Smear / PAP Test

The Pap smear (also called a Pap test) checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens into the vagina (birth canal). The Pap test can tell if you have an infection, abnormal (unhealthy) cells, or cancer.

Why do I need a Pap smear?

A Pap smear can save your life. It can find cancer of the cervix - a common cancer in women - before it moves to other parts of your body (becomes invasive). If caught early, treatment for cancer of the cervix can be easier and the chances of curing it are far greater. Pap smears can also pick up infections and inflammation, and abnormal cells that can change into cancer cells.

Do all women need Pap smears?

It is important for all women to make pap smears, along with pelvic exams, a part of their routine health care. You need to have a Pap smear if you are over 18 years old. If you are under 18 years old and are or have been sexually active, you also need a Pap smear. There is no age limit for the Pap smear. Even women who have gone through menopause (the change of life, or when a woman's periods stop) need to get Pap smears.
The Australian Medical Association recommends that all women who have ever been sexually active should start having Pap smears between the ages of 18 to 20, or one to 2 years after they first had sexual intercourse.

Pap smear registers now operate around Australia through the National Cervical Screening Programme, and if you are on the register, they will send you a reminder when your next Pap smear is due. You will automatically be placed on the register when you have a Pap smear, unless you request otherwise.

My friend had a hysterectomy - does she still need a Pap smear?

Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) should talk with their health care provider about whether they need to continue having routine Pap smears. If the hysterectomy was done because a woman had cancer or a precancerous condition, the end of the vagina still needs to be tested for abnormal changes. Women who have had both their uterus and cervix removed may not need routine Pap smears. Women who have had only the uterus removed (and still have their cervix) need regular Pap smears. It is important for all women who have had a hysterectomy to have regular pelvic examinations.

How often do I need to get a Pap smear?

The Australian Medical Association recommends that all women who have ever been sexually active should start having Pap smears between the ages of 18 to 20, or one to 2 years after they first had sexual intercourse. Pap smear every two years is sufficient for Women with no signs or symptoms

Pap smear registers now operate around Australia through the National Cervical Screening Programme, and if you are on the register, they will send you a reminder when your next Pap smear is due. You will automatically be placed on the register when you have a Pap smear, unless you request otherwise.

Is there anything special I need to do before going for a Pap smear?
For two days before the test, you should not douche or use vaginal creams, suppositories, foams or vaginal medications (like for a yeast infection). It is also best to not use any vaginal deodorant sprays or powders for two days before your test. And, do not have sexual intercourse within 24 hours of your test. All of these can cause inaccurate test results by washing away or hiding abnormal cells. You should not have a Pap smear when you have your period. The best time to have one is between 10 and 20 days after the first day of your last period.

How is a Pap smear done?

Your health care provider can do a Pap smear during a pelvic exam. It is a quick test that takes only a few minutes. You will be asked to lie down on an exam table and put your feet in holders called stirrups, letting your knees fall to the side. A sheet will cover your legs and stomach. The health care provider will put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, opening it to see the cervix and to do the Pap smear. She or he will use a special stick, brush or swab to take a few cells from inside and around the cervix. The cells are placed on a small glass slide, then checked by a lab to make sure they are healthy. While painless for most women, a Pap smear can cause discomfort for some women.

What happens after the Pap smear is done?

If the cells are okay, no treatment is needed. If an infection is present, treatment is prescribed. If the cells look abnormal, or not healthy, more tests may be needed. A Pap smear is not 100% right all the time, so it is always important to talk to your health care provider about your results.

What do abnormal Pap smear results mean?

A health care provider may tell you that your Pap smear result was "abnormal." Cells from the cervix can sometimes look abnormal but this does not mean you have cancer. Remember, abnormal conditions do not always turn into cancer. And, some conditions are more likely than are others to turn into cancer. If you have abnormal results, be sure to talk with your health care provider to find out what they mean and what you need to do (if anything) about it.

What will happen if my Pap smear finds something that is not normal?
If the Pap smear shows something confusing or a minor change in the cells of the cervix, the test may be done again. If the test shows a major change in the cells of the cervix, the health care provider may perform a colposcopy. This is a procedure done in an office or clinic with an instrument (called a colposcope) that acts like a microscope, allowing the health care provider to closely see the vagina and the cervix. Your health care provider may also take a small amount of tissue from the cervix (called a biopsy) to examine for any abnormal cells, which can be a sign of cancer.

My health care provider told me my Pap smear result was a false positive. What does this mean?

Is there such a thing as a false negative Pap smear result? Pap smears are not always 100 percent accurate. False positive and false negative results can happen. This can upset and confuse a woman. Knowing what these types of results mean can help a woman to better protect her health.

A false positive Pap smear happens when a woman is told she has abnormal cells (on and around her cervix), but the cells are in fact normal. A false positive result means that there is no problem. A false negative Pap smear happens when a woman is told her cells are normal, but in fact, there is a change in the normal, healthy cells. This means there may be a problem and there may be a need for more tests. There are many things that can interfere with accurate Pap smear results. This is why women need to be sure to get regular Pap smears. Having regular Pap smears increases a woman's chances that any problems will be picked up over time.

Do sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) cause cancer of the cervix?

One type of STD, called HPV, or the Human Papilloma Virus, has been linked to cancer of the cervix. HPV can cause wart-like growths on the genitals. When it is not treated or happens frequently, HPV can increase a woman's chances of developing cancer of the cervix. HPV is a very common STD, especially in younger women and women with more than one sexual partner.

What increases a woman's risk for cancer of the cervix?

Any woman can get cancer of the cervix. But, the chances of getting cancer of the cervix increase when a woman:

  • Starts having sex before age 18.
  • Has many sexual partners.
  • Has sexual partners who have other sexual partners.
  • Has or has had Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) or genital warts.
  • Has or has had a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
  • Is over the age of 60.
  • Smoking
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