Going to the gynecologists is one of those things that not a single soul on the planet looks forward to, yet it’s a necessary component of overall health. You have to strip down and only be covered by a paper robe, sit down and speak with a healthcare professional like you’re not freezing and counting down the minutes until you can leave, then have them examine your vagina up close while asking personal questions. But, why, exactly, is it so crucial to get a pap smear? What happens if you receive abnormal results? And how often should you get them?
What is a pap smear?
A pap smear is part of a well-woman exam — a medical checkup to get an overview of your reproductive health. The OB-GYN or Nurse Practitioner conducts three examinations — a pelvic exam, a pap smear, and a breast exam. During the pelvic exam, the healthcare provider inserts a lubricated speculum into your vaginal canal to look at the cervix. This is done to determine whether there are any abnormalities, such as unusual discharge, irritation, cysts, or signs of a sexually transmitted disease.
Once that visual inspection is completed, the healthcare provider conducts a pap smear. This involves using a cotton swab to gather cells from your cervix. The cells are then sent to a laboratory to determine whether they are healthy or whether they show any signs of precancerous or cancerous activity.
What if a pap smear is abnormal?
If you receive abnormal pap results, do not panic. You will receive a follow-up phone call from the clinic to schedule additional testing. While the reason for the pap is to detect cancer, an abnormal pap result doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. In fact, most women who have an abnormal pap result turn out not to have cancer. There are certain circumstances that could affect the results, including:
- An impaired immune system
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Having an impaired immune system
- The natural aging process
- Precancerous cells
- Cervical cancer
The abnormality could range from mild, moderate, severe, precancerous, or cancerous. The additional required testing is called a colposcopy. To do it, you will once again lay down on an examination table. The healthcare professional will apply a solution to your vagina and cervix that’s designed to make it easier to detect abnormalities. The OB-GYN or Nurse Practitioner will then use a microscope to look at your visible reproductive organs in detail.
It is possible for everything to look normal during the colposcopy, since some mild cervical cell changes often resolve on their own. If something looks unusual, your medical provider will take a sample of tissue to perform a biopsy. Prior to doing so, she will apply local anesthesia to minimize discomfort. However, you may still experience a pinching sensation, as well as cramping and spotting afterward.
The tissue sample is then sent to a lab for additional testing. Once they return, it may all have been a false alarm, or you may be told to watch and wait for what happens — in which case, you’ll have another pap smear scheduled within six months. If the results indicate precancerous or cancerous activity, your healthcare professional will meet with you to design a treatment plan.
How often should you get a pap smear?
Pap smears save lives — especially if you have a family history of cervical cancer, have experienced a sexually transmitted disease, or previously had abnormal pap results. This is because they can detect abnormalities before they turn into cancer. And, even if cancer has already developed, early detection significantly increases the chances of remission.
Generally, you should start having an annual well-woman exam starting at age 21 — younger if you’re sexually active at an earlier age. Once you’ve had several clean screenings (meaning, no history of abnormalities), you can schedule them once every three years. You can have them even less frequently if you’ve had a hysterectomy or are older than 65 years of age. This may change, however, depending on your personal circumstances, so speak with your healthcare professional about what would be most beneficial for you.
If You Have a Healthcare Concern, Nurse Practitioners of Florida Can Help
At Nurse Practitioners of Florida, we have a dedicated team of certified nurse practitioners who have an unwavering commitment to providing you with care and compassion. When you call any of our locations, you will be greeted by a live person who’s ready to offer acute medical care as well as preventive measures — including pap smears. And above everything else, you will be treated like family.
If you need assistance, call us or fill out our online contact form.