Women's Health: The Pap Test
The Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is a screening test that helps clinicians detect cellular changes in the cervix (the opening to the uterus, or womb at the end of the vagina). The Pap test includes taking a sample of cells by wiping or scraping a small wooden stick (similar to a tongue depressor) over the cervix. The cells are then put on a glass slide and examined by laboratory personnel to look for changes that might warrant further investigation. During the Pap test you will feel the swab being scraped across the cervix; this feels somewhat scratchy, but is not painful.
It is important to understand that the Pap test is a screening test only. Clinicians do not base treatments on the Pap test alone, but use it to determine whether further diagnosic tests are needed. The reason a Pap test is done is to detect changes before they can become cancer. If your Pap test is abnormal, do not be alarmed. Many women incorrectly believe that an abnormal Pap test means that they have cancer. In fact, the cause of 90% of cervical cell changes is a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Most conditions detected by an abnormal Pap test are minor and easily treated in the office.
A Pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer - a common cancer in women. If caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can find infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer cells. Treatment can prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing.
Your first Pap test should be given within 3 years of the onset of sexual activity, or at age 21, whichever is sooner, and should be continued yearly until age 30 - 35. Then, if the past 3 annual tests have been normal, tests may be given every 2-3 years (except for high-risk patients who should continue yearly tests, or if yearly tests are recommended by your health care provider).
High risk patients
- have multiple sex partners and/or partners who have had multiple sex partners
- have had a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- were sexually active before the age of 18
- has or has had human papilloma virus (HPV) or genital warts. There are more than 40 strains of HPV and about a dozen of these have been established as a causative for cervical cancer
- from 60-65 years of age
How to Prepare for Your Pap Test
- Do not douche for 24-38 hours before the test
- Do not have sex for 24-48 hours before the test
- Do not use vaginal medicines (unless prescribed by your doctor) or vaginal creams, foams or spermicidal jellies for 24-48 hours before the test
- The best time to schedule a Pap test is 10-20 days after the onset of your previous menstral period
What does the Pap Test detect?
The Pap test is used to detect several cellular abnormalities within the cervix.
- Cell dysplasia - Once HPV (human papillomavirus) enters a cell, it takes over the normal cell processes and can radically change the cell it infects. Dysplasia is the term used to describe this abnormal transformation. Dysplastic cells often have odd looking shapes and outlines and may resemble cancer cells. If left unchecked, these useless cells continue to multiply and over a period of years they may entirely replace the normal cells in that area. This condition rarely causes symptoms, but it can usually be detected by the Pap test. As long as these cells remain on the surface, they are considered pre-cancerous.
- Cancer - Malignant Cell Growth - Once the abnormal cells develop the capacity to spread deeper into the physical structure of the cervix, it is considered to be an invasive cancer. In its quest for more space and nourishment, the unrestrained growth destroys nearby tissues and organs.
Paying for your Pap Test
If you have questions regarding insurance coverage of your Pap test you should contact your insurance carrier prior to your appointment. Filing an insurance claim for treatment and laboratory services is the responsibility of the student. Student Health Service does provide students with itemized statements for filing with their health insurance plans. These are available upon request, usually 7-10 days after the date of service. Contact your health insurance company for specific directions on how to file a claim.
Email Disclaimer: We encourage people to contact us by phone or in person regarding personal health problems or appointments at the Student Health Service, rather than via email. The nature of email is such that we cannot guarantee the confidentiality of your correspondence. Moreover, we cannot guarantee that we will read your email right away or respond in a timely fashion. For specific questions regarding your health, prescriptions or appointments, please call 701-231-7331 or visit us at the NDSU Student Health Service in the Wellness Center.