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“Pap Smear” is short for Papanicolaou test, and may also be called a “cervical smear” or “smear test.”

A Pap Smear is an important part of a women’s regular health exam. Pap Smears check a woman’s reproductive system to make sure it’s healthy and free of cancerous cells. Pap Smears are often part of a more comprehensive women’s wellness exam.

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A wellness exam can include a breast exam, a physical exam of the genitals, cervix, and ovaries, as well as a Pap Smear. Although, not every exam needs to include a Pap Smear, because how often to get a Pap Smear may change based on your personal needs.

Why Get a Pap Smear?

Pap Smears allow for the early detection and treatment of potentially cancerous cells. Women’s reproductive systems can develop different types of cancer, but one of the most common is cancer of the cervix – cervical cancer – which can develop without visible symptoms. Pap Smears are a painless, non-invasive way that a woman can become aware of her cervical health and take action against any cells that seem to be developing into cancer.

The Pap Smear Procedure

During a Pap Smear, a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix is swabbed and sent to a lab for analysis. Usually, the swab used is made of a cotton ball on a long stick, similar to the cotton swabs people often use to clean their ears or delicate baby’s skin.

Pap Smears are often very relaxed. If you prefer a female medical professional, just ask
Pap Smears are often very relaxed. If you prefer a female medical professional, just ask.

During the visit, the woman undresses and puts on a light robe, then lays on her back on a table. She props her legs into “stirrups” attached to the table, to provide the nurse or doctor easy access to her cervix.

Once the doctor has collected the swab of cell sample from the woman’s cervix, that’s it. Most of the time, a Pap Smear takes only a few minutes to complete. They are generally painless and not at all invasive.

How Often to Get a Pap Smear at Different Ages

Most young women begin to get Pap smears when they begin menstruating or when they become sexually active.  

Young Women

When young, women often receive a Pap Smear only once per year, as long as the results of the tests remain normal. If there are abnormal results, the woman will probably be asked to repeat the test, and may shift to a schedule of getting a Pap Smear once every six months.

Older Women

Once a woman goes through menopause, as long as she has had no abnormal Pap Smear results, her doctor may advise only having a Pap Smear once every 18 months or every two years. This can depend on other health factors and whether or not the woman remains sexually active, and in some cases, older women are advised to begin having Pap Smears more frequently than once per year.

How Often to Get a Pap Smear After Abnormal Results

If a woman receives abnormal results from her Pap Smear, her doctor will advise her regarding a new Pap Smear schedule. Depending on the results, the doctor may advise the woman to begin getting Pap Smears once every 9 months or once every 6 months. This is because if there are abnormal, potentially cancerous cells developing, the doctor will want to monitor how quickly they change.

If a follow-up Pap Smear shows that the results are becoming more abnormal, or that potentially cancerous cells are spreading to new areas of the cervix, the doctor may advise additional procedures to prevent the spread of the abnormal cells.

Follow your professional's advice about how often to get a Pap Smear
Follow your professional’s advice about how often to get a Pap Smear.

After one of these treatments of abnormal cells, some doctors again recommend their patients continue a schedule of getting a Pap Smear every 6 months. This is they can properly monitor the recovery and make sure the abnormal cells don’t reappear.

Early Detection is Crucial

Pap Smears are essential because they provide a woman early detection of potential reproductive health issues. The best way to prevent cancer or other reproductive diseases from becoming worse is to catch and treat them early. Especially in the case of HPV and cervical cancer, women need to closely monitor their health, and getting your regular Pap Smears is the easiest, best way.