A routine health check-up for a woman is not complete till she gets a pap test done. A pap test or pap smear test is crucial in detecting changes or abnormalities in the cervix like unhealthy cervical cells or lesions.
It is typically used to screen for cervical cancer but also for other non-cancerous, pre-malignant conditions like an infection in the cervix.
The cervix is the lower end of the uterus, at the opening of the birth canal (vagina). Since cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25, it is recommended to get a pap test done once every 3 years, specifically after becoming sexually active. The procedure is necessary only for women who neither have cancer or its symptoms.
A pap test is normally performed by a gynecologist or a medical assistant with relevant qualifications and experience. Patients are normally advised to refrain from having sexual intercourse for at least 48 hours ahead of the test.
Vaginal creams, tampons, sponges and other products should not be used for 2-3 days so that abnormalities can be detected better. It is recommended to get the test done within two weeks after menstruation.
For the procedure, the patient needs to lie down on the exam table and place her heels on stirrups. The medical professional will insert a speculum into the vagina so that the cervix can be seen better. He or she will then proceed to take a sample of the cells on the cervix using a wooden scraper, cotton swab or cervical brush.
The sample, also called a smear is placed in a glass vial and is ready for evaluation. The test is not usually painful but can cause a little discomfort, mostly at the time of inserting the speculum.
There may be a pulling sensation when the cells are being scraped off. Patients can do some deep breathing exercises and relax their pelvic muscles to ensure that the discomfort is minimal.
After the test, it is normal for the patient to experience a little bleeding from the vagina. In case the bleeding is excessive, it may require immediate medical attention.
If the test results show any irregularities in the cervix, the patient will be advised on the recommended course of treatment. Regular screening for cervical abnormalities can go a long way in preventing more serious and malignant complications.