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Pap Tests and Cervical Health: A Healthy Habit for You

  • Updated: 06/13/2012

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Cervical cancer is largely preventable and curable with regular Pap tests and pelvic exams. This page provides answers to commonly asked questions about Pap tests, as well as comments from women who have had Pap tests and pelvic exams.

Knowing exactly what to expect, as well as the important benefits of cervical cancer screening, can help put you more at ease during your appointment with your doctor.

  1. What is a Pap test?
    A Pap test is used to find cell changes in the cervix. It can find problems that can be treated before they turn into cervical cancer. A Pap test also can find cancer early. If cervical cancer is found early, it's easier to cure.

  2. How is a Pap test done?
    A Pap test is done during a pelvic exam. You will lie on an exam table with a sheet over your legs and stomach. Next, you'll put your feet on the holders called stirrups and let your knees fall to the side. A nurse or doctor uses a plastic or metal instrument called a speculum to look into your vagina. He or she then uses a small, soft brush to take a few cells from your cervix (opening to the womb). This test takes only a few seconds. A lab will check these cells for cancer or other problems. Your doctor may also do an HPV test at this time.

    "The nurse told me not to use vaginal creams or douche for 48 hours before the exam."

  3. What is an HPV test? Do I need one?
    Almost all cervical cancers are caused by viruses called HPVs (Human Papillomaviruses). If your Pap test results are unclear, your doctor may want to perform an HPV test. Having an HPV test is like having a pap test. If you are age 30 or over, talk with your doctor to learn if an HPV test is right for you. For more information on HPVs, go to NCI's Cancer Facts.

  4. What else happens during a pelvic exam?
    The nurse or doctor will look at your vaginal area to see if you have any signs of infection or other problems. After the Pap test, the nurse or doctor will check your tubes, ovaries, and uterus (womb) by putting two gloved fingers inside your vagina. With her other hand, she will feel from the outside for any lumps or tenderness. This takes only a few minutes. Once the exam is over, you can get dressed.

    "If I start to feel embarrassed, I take some deep breaths, and then I feel better."

  5. Could I have cervical cancer and not know it?
    YES—often cervical cancer causes no symptoms or pain.

  6. Where do I get a Pap test?
    • Doctor's office
    • Medical clinic
    • Local health department
    • College health center

  7. Who needs to have a Pap test?
    You do if:
    • You are under 21 and began having sex three years ago
      -- or --
    • You are 21 or over

  8. How often should I get a Pap test?
    Most women should get a Pap test at least once every 3 years. Talk with your doctor about what testing schedule is right for you.

  9. When can I stop getting Pap tests?
    If you are age 65 or older, talk with your doctor about whether you still need to get Pap tests. You and your doctor can decide what testing schedule is right for you based on your past Pap test results.

  10. A Pap test is important to me because it can:
    • Find abnormal cervical cell changes before they have a chance to become cancerous.
    • Tell if you have cancer of the cervix early—while it's still easier to cure.

Call your doctor or local medical clinic TODAY for a Pap test appointment.

Pap tests can save your life!

For more information on the Pap test, visit the National Cancer Institute's Web site at or call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER.

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