We know that pap smears are meant to detect cancers and precancerous changes in the cervix, and other parts of a woman’s reproductive tract. A pap test is performed by using a speculum to take a sample of cells from the cervix and the pap smear results will reveal if a woman has anything to worry about.
It is recommended that women should undergo pap smears soon after becoming sexually active and that they continue to do so from the age of 21 (in the US) or 25 (the recommended age in the UK) up to the age of 50 or 60. The pap test has little or no meaning among women who have not become sexually active. The test is required to be repeated every 3 to 5 years, depending upon the pap smear results; whether they were normal or abnormal.
What a pap smear can detect
The test devised by the Greek physician Georgios Papanikolaou takes cell sampleswhich are scraped off the cervix using a spatula like object. These cells are then examined to check for any abnormality such as tumors, precancerous lesions, cervical dysplasia and so on. It can also detect certain infections and abnormalities in other areas of the reproductive tract such as the endometrium (lining of the uterus) or the endocervix.
Pap smear results will help to detect cervical cancer in its early stages, before it has had a chance to manifest in the form of any symptoms of the disease; when hopefully the cancer is still at a treatable and curable stage.
A pap smear is a painless procedure, so long as a woman has a healthy vagina and cervix. If however there are any infections present or if the health care professional performing the pap test is too harsh, it could cause some pain. Some women tend to have a small amount of spotting or some diarrhea after the procedure.
To get the most accurate results women should not be menstruating, they shouldn’t have had sex, douched or used any vaginal creams before the procedure.
What pap smear results indicate
For a vast majority of women, a pap test will indicate nothing untoward and the results will be normal. Even among the abnormal results, the most common finding is a low grade squamous intraepithelial lesion. All that this may indicate is that the woman has an HPV infection. In a majority of these cases, the cervical dysplasia goes on to resolve itself and no actual treatment may be needed.
However if an abnormality is detected, further tests may be indicated. In particular a procedure called acolposcopy (the use of a microscope to observe the vagina and cervix) may be indicated. During a colposcopy, tissue samples of the cervix may be taken by way of a biopsy.
Abnormal pap smear results don’t mean cancer in most cases; in fact in a majority of cases they don’t even mean that cancer will occur in the future. What the detected abnormality does indicate is that a woman needs to be more vigilant about testing in future.