Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on February 11, 2021. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
While Pap smears are supposed to be a quick test, some women still dread getting the screening. A cold, metal tool clamps open your vagina while a physician takes a swab of your cervix cells—so, understandably, it can be an uncomfortable experience for many. But did you know Pap smears are an important part of women's health screenings and can potentially be life-saving?
Here, we take a look at what Pap smear tests are used for, when you should get one, and what it means if your results come back abnormal, so read on to learn more.
Screening for HPV without leaving your home is easy with the Everlywell at-home HPV Test, which lets you check for fourteen HPV genotypes that are associated with increased cervical cancer risk—including HPV 16 and 18. The process is simple: you collect your own sample at home, send it to a lab for testing (shipping is free!), and get your easy-to-understand digital results in a few days. From there, you can collaborate with your healthcare provider to discuss next steps.
The Pap test, also known as the Pap smear, is a cervical cancer screening test administered by a healthcare provider. The test can detect abnormal cells in your cervix that may turn into cancer if they’re not treated.
During the Pap test, the physician administering the test will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps them examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and surrounding areas. The cell samples are then sent to a lab for testing.
While Pap tests and HPV tests have the same collection method and are often done at the same time, they test for different things:
No, a Pap test only checks for cell changes and potentially cancerous cells in your cervix. However, an abnormal Pap test result could indicate that you may have human papillomavirus (HPV), which is an STD that’s associated with a high risk of cervical cancer. That’s because a Pap smear checks for precancerous cell changes, or abnormalities, on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. These cell changes are often caused by HPV.
So, while Pap tests do not directly check for STDs, if you have abnormal Pap test results your healthcare provider may follow up with an HPV test to confirm whether you have this particular kind of STD.
Check for HPV from the privacy and comfort of home with the Everlywell at-home HPV Test.
If your Pap smear results come back abnormal, this means that the test detected abnormally shaped cells in your sample. Abnormal Pap tests are common and are often the result of a cervical or vaginal infection unrelated to cervical cancer.
However, your healthcare provider may order additional testing to confirm the possibility of cervical cancer or remove cancerous (or precancerous) cells. These additional tests may include the following:
If cancerous or precancerous cells are found in your sample, your physician may recommend a treatment plan based on your age and the degree of abnormality.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer can usually be prevented if women are screened regularly with a Pap test—so, yes! For many women, Pap smears are necessary and very important for health.
Pap tests can be life-saving because they can find cervical cancer cells early. The chance of successful treatment of cervical cancer is very high if the disease is caught early.
According to the CDC’s cervical cancer screening recommendations, women and menstruating individuals between ages 21-29 years should undergo a Pap smear every three years. Those between 30-65 years should get a Pap smear every three years, HPV testing every five years, or a combination of these two tests every five years (co-testing), depending on your healthcare provider’s recommendation (and if results are normal).
If you want to check for HPV without the waiting rooms or clinic visits, you can now screen for high-risk HPV genotypes from the comfort of your home. The Everlywell HPV Test allows you to collect your sample at home, send it to a CLIA-certified lab for testing, and receive your digital results in days. From there, you can choose to share your results with your healthcare provider to follow up and discuss next steps.
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6. Colposcopy. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 11, 2021.
7. Cone biopsy. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 11, 2021.
8. VPD Surveillance Manual - Chapter 5: Human Papillomavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL (PDF). Accessed February 11, 2021.