It’s uncomfortable. It may be slightly embarrassing. It could save your life. It’s a Pap smear! While those words can send a little shiver down your spine, it’s one of the most important preventative procedures you can do for your health. Now, we all know we should be getting regular pap smears, but do you actually know why?
What Is a Pap Smear?
A Pap smear is a test that looks for changes in the cells of the cervix. The cells are collected by inserting a speculum into the vagina allowing the cervix to be examined. Your doctor will then collect the cells by using a cotton swab, a cervix brush, or a small spatula. After the cells are collected, they are examined under a microscope for abnormalities. These abnormalities may point to cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells that may turn into cancerous cells) or cervical cancer.
When Should You Get a Pap Smear?
It’s recommended that you and your doctor decide when the time is right for you to being Pap testing, and how often the procedure should be repeated. General guidelines state that you should begin getting tested when you become sexually active, or starting at the age of 21. If testing continues as normal, you should only need to repeat the procedure every three years. If you’re over 30, you may be able to have the procedure done every five years, if combined with testing for HPV (Human Pamplona Virus).
If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may require you to come in annually, or even semi-annually as a preventative measure. Some of these risk factors include:
- Sexually active with multiple partners
- A cervical cancer diagnosis, or a Pap smear showing pre-cancerous cells
- HIV infection
- Weakened immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic corticosteroid use
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
What Happens If My Pap Smear Is Abnormal?
Your Pap smear is considered abnormal if there are abnormal cells that have been identified on your cervix. Changes in your cervical cells could be as simple as:
- A yeast, or bacterial infection
- Menopause, or cellular changes as a result of aging
- Having an impaired immune system
Depending on the type of abnormal cells found, your doctor may recommend more frequent testing, and in some cases may recommend colposcopy, where it is possible they may take a biopsy of the cervix or vagina.
In some cases, cell changes may also be caused by certain types of HPV. Many times these cell changes will go away on their own, but certain strains of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer. Changes in the cervical cells are more likely to happen if you are having unprotected sex with multiple partners, increasing your likelihood of contracting HPV. After all testing is completed and evaluated, it is important to establish a treatment plan and a course of action with your doctor.
When Can You Stop Getting a Pap Smear?
There may come a time when you and your doctor can decide to end Pap testing. The main reason being that of getting older. Generally speaking, doctors suggest that you can consider stopping routine Pap smears over the age of 65, if previous tests for cervical cancer have been negative.
If you have had a total hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus, including the cervix), talk to your doctor about continuing Pap smears. In cases of a hysterectomy being performed for a noncancerous condition, you may be able to discontinue routines Pap testing. But, if your hysterectomy was performed for a precancerous, or cancerous condition, your doctor may require you to come in routinely for continuous testing.
It’s important to remember that preventative care is the best (and easiest) way to take control of your overall health. If you have any questions or concerns, or if you have not had a Pap smear in the past, contact the physicians at Miami OBGYN for a non-biased, judgment-free consultation.
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