A doctor talking to their patient about what to expect from a future Pap smear with a clipboard in their hand.

Are you getting a Pap smear? Here’s the process

A Pap smear, or a Pap test, involves taking cells from the cervix and then examining those cells under a microscope to see whether they’re normal or abnormal. It’s a common and important screening test, because cervical cells can tell your healthcare provider a lot about your reproductive health – including showing evidence of cell changes caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), which can lead to cervical cancer.

About the Pap smear test

Getting a Pap smear is an important part of maintaining good reproductive health. But for some people, the concept of a Pap smear can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the appointments are pretty standard, and knowing what the test will involve ahead of time may help you feel a bit better by knowing what to expect. So if you’ve never gotten a Pap smear before – or if you just want a refresher – here’s what the test involves.

What to expect before your Pap smear

You don’t need to do much to prepare for your Pap smear – the most important thing you can bring is yourself. However, there are a couple of things to note about preparing for your appointment. For starters, if you have your period the day of your appointment and your flow is heavy, you might want to call your provider and make sure that’s fine for the test. Pap smears can be done during menstruation, but a heavy flow could potentially obstruct test results. Also, many providers suggest abstaining from using tampons, having vaginal sex, or using any vaginal creams or gels for at least two days before your appointment.

What to expect during the Pap smear

Once you’re in the examination room, you’ll undress, and your provider will ask you to lie down on the examination table. Once your provider is ready, they will ask you to put your feet in stirrups or on the bottom of the exam table, to separate your legs, and to remain relaxed. Doing some deep breathing or visualization if you’re nervous can help.Your provider will then insert a speculum into your vagina; this is an instrument that holds the walls of the vagina apart so that your provider can get a better view of your cervix. If you find yourself feeling stressed or tense during this part, try squeezing your hands or wiggling your toes; both are helpful ways to relieve tension without moving the rest of your body.

Your provider will take some samples of your cervical cells by using a brush or other device to scrape some cells off your cervix. If they use a brush, imagine it looking a little like a mascara brush. This might feel a little strange or uncomfortable, but it will only last a few seconds.

Afterwards, your provider will remove the speculum, and they might perform a quick manual exam while their hands are still gloved. This part will be very short, and once it’s done, the test is done as well!

Keep in mind that none of these steps should hurt, so if you do experience any discomfort, tell your provider right away so they can take steps and make adjustments to relieve discomfort and help you feel more comfortable. Pain is also an important symptom — speaking up can help identify any other potential problems.

What to expect after the Pap smear

Once the test is over, your provider will send your cells to a lab where they’ll be examined. Once the results are in, they are usually mailed to the patient within two weeks of the test, but you might not receive any information if the results were normal. If the results are abnormal, a follow-up appointment will be scheduled.

A Pap smear, especially your first one, might involve a little bit of awkwardness or discomfort, but this test can make a big impact on your health, so it’s worth it. If you have any concerns or fears before the test, take a moment to talk through everything with your provider. Some people may want to help insert their own speculum or have other modifications to support the exam. Your provider should be able to help you make this as comfortable as possible.  

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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