Prepare for Your First Pap Smear
A papanicolaou test, commonly known as a pap smear, is a simple medical test where cells are scraped from the cervix to determine if any are cancerous.
Sexually active women under the age of 21 should have pap smears. Women over the age of 21 should have pap smears, regardless of whether or not they're sexually active. The Harvard Medical School recommends women get a pap smear done every one to three years.
If you don't know what to expect, a first pap smear can be a nerve-wracking experience. Knowing what will happen and if there's anything you should do to prepare will make the experience easier and less stressful.
What to Expect With a Pap Smear
Knowing what to expect is the first step in preparation. Since your doctor needs to be able to access your cervix, you will be asked to disrobe. You will disrobe when your doctor isn't in the room and will be given a paper gown to wear.
If you're having a full physical, you may be asked to completely disrobe. If you're only getting a pap smear done, your doctor may ask you to just remove your pants and underwear.
When your doctor returns to the room, she will ask you to lie down on your back. She will position the stirrups in the bench, if this hasn't been done already. Your doctor may ask you to slide your bottom down the bench so you're in the correct position for the Pap smear. You will be asked to spread your legs and try to relax.
A speculum will be inserted into your vagina. Most doctors lubricate the speculum so that it slides in easier. The speculum may feel cold and a little uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt. It's not going to feel good, but relaxing can help reduce the discomfort. Your doctor will insert a special tool into your vagina to collect cells from your cervix. You may feel some pressure and gentle scraping.
What Happens After the Sample is Collected?
The cells are placed on a sealed glass slide and labeled with your name. They will be sent to a laboratory for testing. You will not hear back from the doctor unless something abnormal shows up on the slide. It may take two to three weeks before results are available according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The CDC says that tests that come back as abnormal don't mean you're going to develop cervical cancer. It's a precaution, but it's still vital for you to follow up with your doctor and complete any additional tests.
More About Pap Smear Tools
A speculum is a tool that spreads the vagina and allows access to the cervix.
Many doctors will use two different tools to collect a sample of cells from the cervix. An aylesbury spatula is used to collect cell samples from the outer opening of the cervix. An endocervical brush is rotated in the middle opening of the cervix.
Some doctors use a small plastic-fronded broom to collect cervical cell samples instead of the spatula and the brush. According to a study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, this is a less effective way of collecting cells.
Pap Smear Scheduling Tips
A pap smear can be done by a gynecologist or a general practitioner. When you make your appointment, have your calendar handy so that you can schedule it for a day when you won't have your period.
The CDC recommends that you avoid having sexual intercourse for at least 48 hours before the Pap smear. Other things to avoid include using vaginal medications, inserting tampons or douching.