Sexual health is not just about new positions and how to please one’s partner. Sexual health is also about taking care of your body, making sure potentially deadly complications aren’t about to rear their ugly heads. When it comes to a woman’s sexual health, one of the most important exams out there is the pap smear.
A pap smear checks for changes in the cells of the cervix and is an important step in catching cervical cancer early.
Pap smear and cervical cancer
The National Cancer Institute defines cervical cancer as “cancer that forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms but can be found with regular Pap smear tests (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope). Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.”
There are approximately 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer reported annually in the U.S. with an average of 4,000 annual deaths from the disease.
How is a pap smear performed?
A pap smear can only be performed by a medical professional and is usually done in yearly intervals in healthy women depending on age.
Any woman between the ages of 18 and 70 should have routine pap smears, and women who are sexually active earlier than age 18 may need screenings for the HPV virus.
Womenshealth.gov advises women looking to have a pap smear that they should avoid the following for two days prior to the test:
- Having sex
- Using vaginal medicines
- Using vaginal sprays or powders
- Using tampons
On the day of the test, the doctor will obtain a sample of cervical cells during a pelvic exam.
A speculum is used to open the vaginal canal so the doctor may view the cervix. A special brush is then used to brush the cervix and gain a few layers of cells. The cells are then sent off to a laboratory for examination.
Many women consider pap smears mildly uncomfortable and some may experience minimal bleeding afterward.
What happens when a pap smear comes up as abnormal?
An abnormal Pap smear is not necessarily an indication of cervical cancer.
Any change in cervical cells can cause an abnormal result, and based on the pathological findings, the doctor will know what course of action should be taken.
Some abnormal cells go away on their own; however, sometimes more advance medical procedures are needed.
Women with serious changes in the cervix may need to have a biopsy done or may need to have a larger sample of cells obtained through colposcopy or endocervical curettage.