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Your First Pap Smear - What to Expect

Everything You Need to Know About Having Your First Pap Smear

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Updated June 13, 2008

Women should begin having a regular Pap smear about three years after having vaginal intercourse, or by age 21. Women who have never had a Pap smear may feel anxious about having their first screening. Not knowing how a Pap smear is done or what to expect is major cause of the anxiety.

What is a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. It is not a diagnostic test, so having the test done regularly is essential. A Pap smear identifies women who may be at high risk for having precancerous or cancerous cervical changes.

If Pap smear results determine abnormal cervical changes, then a colposcopy is performed. A colposcopy is a diagnostic test that allows the doctor to view the cervix more closely.

Preparing for a Pap Smear

The first step in preparing for a Pap smear is to make the appointment. Family practice physicians, gynecologists, internal medicine physicians, and low cost clinics like county health departments and Planned Parenthood all offer Pap smears. Be sure not to schedule your appointment during your period. Although a Pap smear may be able to be done during a very light period, it is best to schedule it around it.

There are several other things you can do to prepare for your Pap smear. Forty-eight hours prior to your Pap smear, avoid:
  • sexual intercourse
  • douching or vaginal inserts
  • vaginal foams, jellies, or spermicides
  • tampons
All of these can interfere with the accuracy of the exam.

What to Expect During the Pap Smear

First, you will be asked to undress from the waist down. You will be given a sheet to place over your mid-section and upper thighs, so you will not be completely exposed.

Next, you will be asked to lay on the exam table and place your feet in stirrups, to hold your feet in place during the examination. Stirrups are usually cold, so you may want to bring a pair of socks to wear.

A lubricated speculum will then be inserted into the vagina. Remember to take deep breaths and to relax. This will also help the vaginal muscle to relax, making the exam less uncomfortable.

Using a small mascara-like brush or swab, a doctor will take sample cells from the cervix. This is done by very gently rubbing of the cervix with the brush or swab. Some women have no sensation when this is done, while some experience mild discomfort.

The sample is then placed in a tube with a special preservative or a slide and then sent to a lab for processing.

After the sample is taken, the speculum is removed gently from the vagina. You are then able to sit up and begin dressing. The Pap smear is now over!

After the Pap Smear

Before leaving your appointment, ask your doctor or nurse how the office notifies patients of their results and when you should expect to get results back. Some doctors prefer to send results by mail and some do by phone. It generally takes about two weeks for results to come back.

Remember that while the Pap smear is an effective screening tool for cervical cancer, it is only effective when done regularly. Be sure to ask your doctor how often you should have a Pap smear. Pap smear frequency varies from woman to woman, based on age, health, and previous Pap smear findings.


Sources:

"Pap Test: What is a Pap Test." 02 Feb 2003. American Cancer Society.

"The Pap Test Questions and Answers." Dec 2003. National Cancer Institute.

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