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Pap Smear

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Also known as: PAP Test
Formal name: Papanicolaou Smear; Cervical Smear; Cervical/vaginal Cytology
Related tests: HPV; Trichomonas

The Test Sample

What is being tested?

Thumbnail diagram of the cervix

A Pap smear is a test used to detect abnormal or potentially abnormal cells from the vagina and uterine cervix. Various bacterial, fungal, and viral infections of the uterus may also be detected using this test.

Pap smears, when performed routinely, have been a great help in the detection and treatment of areas of pre-cancerous cells, which help to prevent cervical cancer from developing. In addition, the test can help detect cervical cancer in the early stages, when it is most treatable. The Pap smear is also used to monitor any abnormalities or unusual findings. In many cases, these findings are part of the body's repair process and often resolve themselves without any further treatment.

How is the sample collected for testing?

The conventional method consists of sampling cells from the cervical area. The sample is obtained using a type of wooden "spatula," cotton swab, or brush. Relatively new liquid-based methods are available that are modifications of the conventional Pap smear. The specimen is collected as noted above but is not placed directly onto a glass slide. Rather, it is put into a special liquid preservative. This cell suspension is processed onto a glass slide, stained, and examined.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

You may be instructed not to douche or tub bathe for 24 hours before the Pap smear is to be performed. You may also be asked to refrain from sexual intercourse for 24 to 48 hours before the test. Do not use any vaginal creams or foams for 48 hours prior to the exam and do not schedule the test during your menstrual period.