What is a pap smear?

A Pap smear or Pap test is a screening test for cervical cancer. It is named after Georgios Papanikolaou, the doctor who determined its use in detecting early signs that could lead to cervical cancer.

It is one form of cervical cancer screening. Some women also have HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) testing.

During the exam, you lie on an exam table and a provider collects a sample of cervical cells. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to allow your provider to view the cervix. A wooden spatula and small brush are used to collect cells from the vaginal surface and canal. The process is quick and should be pain free.

The cells are put into a specimen container and sent to pathology where they are examined under a microscope to see if abnormal cells are present.

Why is a Pap smear important?

Pap smears are able to detect early mild cellular changes. It usually takes several years for abnormalities to become cancer. Our goal is to catch these changes and monitor or treat as needed to prevent progression to cervical cancer.

Who is at risk for cervical cancer?

HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer. It is a common virus that is transmitted during sexual intercourse. Most cases of HPV resolve on their own, however, some types of HPV are higher risk and can progress to cervical cancer. Smoking and coinfection with other STIs such as herpes and HIV also can increase risk.

When do I need to start getting them?

Women aged 21 to 29 years should have a Pap test alone every three years. HPV testing is not recommended. The preferred regimen for women aged 30 to 65 years is to have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every five years. It also is acceptable to have just a Pap test every three years.

University of Iowa students can schedule an appointment with a provider at Student Health and Wellness online through their MyChart account or by calling 1-319-335-8394.
Last reviewed: 
August 2017

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