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Pap test

Papanicolaou test; Pap smear; Cervical cancer screening - Pap test; Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia - Pap; CIN - Pap; Precancerous changes of the cervix - Pap; Cervical cancer - Pap; Squamous intraepithelial lesion - Pap; LSIL - Pap; HSIL - Pap; Low-grade Pap; High-grade Pap; Carcinoma in situ - Pap; CIS - Pap; ASCUS - Pap; Atypical glandular cells - Pap; AGUS - Pap; Atypical squamous cells - Pap; HPV - Pap; Human papilloma virus - Pap cervix - Pap; Colposcopy - Pap; Cervical cytology

The Pap test mainly checks for changes that may turn into cervical cancer. Cells scraped from the opening of the cervix are examined under a microscope. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that opens at the top of the vagina.

This test is sometimes called a Pap "smear" or "cervical cytology."

How the Test is Performed

You lie on a table and place your feet in footrests. Your health care provider gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to open it slightly. This allows the provider to see the cervix.

Cells are gently collected from the cervix area. The sample of cells is sent to a lab for examination.

How to Prepare for the Test

Tell your provider if you:

  • Have had an abnormal Pap test or a positive human papillomavirus (HPV) test in the past. HPV is a virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer.
  • Might be pregnant.

DO NOT do the following for 24 hours before the test:

  • Douche (douching should never be done)
  • Have intercourse
  • Use tampons

Try not to schedule your Pap test for when you have your period, but if you are having unexpected bleeding, do not cancel your exam. Your provider will determine if the Pap test can still be done.

For your comfort, you may want to empty your bladder just before the test.

How the Test will Feel

A Pap test causes little to no discomfort for most people. It can cause some discomfort, similar to menstrual cramps. You may also feel some pressure during the exam.

You may bleed a little bit after the test.

Why the Test is Performed

The Pap test looks for changes in cervical cells that may turn into cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers can be avoided if you have screenings according to the recommended schedule.

You should start having Pap tests at age 21 and continue having them every 3 years.

If you are over age 30 you can do any of the following:

  • Continue to have a Pap test every 3 years
  • Switch to a test for HPV every 5 years
  • Have both the Pap and HPV tests every 5 years

You may not need to have a Pap test if you have had a total hysterectomy (uterus and cervix removed) and have not had abnormal tests in the past.

Most people can stop having Pap tests after age 65 if they've had normal tests in the past. Ask your provider when you should stop screening.

Normal Results

A normal result means there are no abnormal cells present. The Pap test is not 100% accurate, and this is why repeat testing is recommended. Because cervical cancer develops very slowly, repeat Pap tests usually find changes in time for treatment before cancer develops.  

What Abnormal Results Mean

The most common abnormal Pap test results are:

Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASC-US)

  • This test result is considered a mild change.
  • These changes may be due to an HPV infection, inflammation, or lack of estrogen as occurs in menopause.
  • Repeat Pap testing or HPV testing is recommended. If an HPV test is positive, colposcopy is recommended.

Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL)

  • This test result is considered a mild change.
  • These changes are often associated with an active HPV infection but may indicate that a precancer or cancer is present.
  • Colposcopy is recommended unless an HPV test is negative, in which case repeat testing in one year is often recommended.

Atypical squamous cells, cannot rule out HSIL (ASC-H)

  • This test result is considered a relatively severe change.
  • These changes may indicate that a precancer or cancer is present.
  • Colposcopy is recommended.

High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL)

  • This test result is considered a severe change.
  • These changes may indicate that a precancer or cancer is present.
  • Colposcopy is recommended.

Atypical glandular cells (AGC)

  • This test result is considered a severe change.
  • These changes may indicate that there is a precancer or cancer of the cells inside the cervix or uterus.
  • Colposcopy is recommended and may include a biopsy of the lining of the uterus.

References

Fontham ETH, Wolf AMD, Church TR, Etzioni R, Flowers CR, Herzig A, Guerra CE, Oeffinger KC, Shih YT, Walter LC, Kim JJ, Andrews KS, DeSantis CE, Fedewa SA, Manassaram-Baptiste D, Saslow D, Wender RC, Smith RA. Cervical cancer screening for individuals at average risk: 2020 guideline update from the American Cancer Society. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020 Sep;70(5):321-346. Epub 2020 Jul 30. PMID: 32729638 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32729638/.

Newkirk GR. Pap smear and related techniques for cervical cancer screening. In: Fowler GC, ed. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 120.

Perkins RB, Guido RS, Castle PE, Chelmow D, Einstein MH, Garcia F, Huh WK, Kim JJ, Moscicki AB, Nayar R, Saraiya M, Sawaya GF, Wentzensen N, Schiffman M; 2019 ASCCP Risk-Based Management Consensus Guidelines Committee. 2019 ASCCP Risk-Based Management Consensus Guidelines for Abnormal Cervical Cancer Screening Tests and Cancer Precursors. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2020 Apr;24(2):102-131. Erratum in: J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2020 Oct;24(4):427. PMID: 32243307; PMCID: PMC7147428 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32243307/.

Salcedo MP, Phoolcharoen N, Schmeler KM. Intraepithelial neoplasia of the lower genital tract (cervix, vagina, vulva): etiology, screening, diagnosis, management. In: Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, Lobo RA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 29.

US Preventive Services Task Force, Curry SJ, Krist AH, Owens DK, et al. Screening for cervical cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA. 2018;320(7):674-686. PMID: 30140884 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30140884/.

  • Female reproductive anatomy - illustration

    External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

    Female reproductive anatomy

    illustration

  • Pap smear - illustration

    A Pap test is a simple, relatively inexpensive procedure that can easily detect cancerous or precancerous conditions.

    Pap smear

    illustration

  • Uterus - illustration

    The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

    Uterus

    illustration

  • Cervical erosion - illustration

    Cervical erosion occurs when the surface of the cervix is replaced with inflamed tissue from the cervical canal. The condition may be caused by trauma, infection or chemicals.

    Cervical erosion

    illustration

  • Female reproductive anatomy - illustration

    External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

    Female reproductive anatomy

    illustration

  • Pap smear - illustration

    A Pap test is a simple, relatively inexpensive procedure that can easily detect cancerous or precancerous conditions.

    Pap smear

    illustration

  • Uterus - illustration

    The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

    Uterus

    illustration

  • Cervical erosion - illustration

    Cervical erosion occurs when the surface of the cervix is replaced with inflamed tissue from the cervical canal. The condition may be caused by trauma, infection or chemicals.

    Cervical erosion

    illustration

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St. Luke’s, 915 East First Street, Duluth, MN 55805 218.249.5555 | 800.321.3790

Review Date: 1/10/2022

Reviewed By: John D. Jacobson, MD, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 11/11/2022.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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