Don’t fear the pap smear: Things you need to know

We hear a lot about pap smears and their importance for women’s health. But many of us may not know exactly what they are and why we need them. And we hear a lot about new guidelines for examinations. It’s a good time to help clear up the facts.

Routine pap smears are so crucial because they have helped lower the rate of invasive cervical cancer by 74 percent over the past several decades. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused one of the viruses frequently found during a pap smear. And this can be completely treated and prevented. St.Vincent is offering free pap exams in January of 2011. Click here to learn more.

New guidelines indicate that women should have their first pap smears at age 21. The guidelines also say that women who’ve had a hysterectomy and have never had an abnormal pap smear no longer need pap smears.

Some organizations are recommending that women who are over 30 and have had three normal pap smears in a row could move to having a paper smear every three years. But, as long as you have your ovaries you still need a pelvic exam. Speak with your healthcare provider about your personal schedule of pap smears.

While the new guidelines are lenient for women who have regular pap smears, it is important to remember that an estimated 50 percent of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer in the U.S. never had a pap smear. The first step is making sure you aren’t one of those women. And that means making sure you get a pap smear.

So what is it? Let’s start with the basics. Your cervix is part of your uterus that we check through a pelvic exam. Located at the end of your uterus, the cervix is also a place in your body that can become infected by viruses of many types. We use specific tests — the pap smear — to detect these viruses before going on to treat them. The best time during your cycle to go for the test is about two weeks from your last period. You should avoid having a pap smear while menstruating.

How does it work? This is a very simple procedure completed during a pelvic exam. A speculum is an instrument inserted into the vagina to help us see the cervix. Then a tiny, soft brush and a soft swab are used to collect the cells needed for evaluating the cervix. The most common pap smear is called a thin prep. This is the name given to the type and the process that is used to get the results.

Most of the time the pap will be normal and you should be notified by your healthcare provider office of the results. Make sure you get that notification. If your results are abnormal, don’t panic. Most of the time your pap will just be repeated. We also can do some other tests to evaluate the result more completely.

The biggest thing to remember is that you should have routine visits with your healthcare provider and should not be afraid of this test.

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