In Australia, every woman has been able to get a free ‘Pap smear’ (also known as a ‘Pap test’ or ‘Cervical Screening Test’) every two years as a part of the National Cervical Screening Program, which was introduced in 1991. And in December 2017, the screening test changed somewhat, but the basic principles are broadly unchanged.
It’s recommended that every woman over the age of 25 who has been sexually active should have a regular Pap test. Here is everything you need to know about Pap Smears.
The test is a simple screening process that tests for the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV) or abnormal cells in the cervix. It is a routine procedure that shouldn’t be cause for any concern.
Every woman over the age of 25 who has been sexually active should have a regular Pap test, so it is a good idea that you are familiar with the process.
Here’s everything you need to know about Pap smears.
Why Do I Need a Pap Test?
The purpose of a Pap test is to collect cells from the cervix to test them for cancerous cells or cells that may develop into cervical cancer. In 99% of cases, cervical cancer is caused by a common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. This means that, in most cases, only sexually active women are susceptible to cervical cancer. However, there are other factors that may place you at risk of developing it.
If you are in a monogamous relationship, or had been for many years and are no longer sexually active, you should still have regular tests. The HPV can stay dormant for many years and become suddenly active for no apparent reason. However, if you are over the age of 75, with a history of normal test results, you may no longer need to be tested.
The best way to determine if you need a Pap test is by talking to your gynaecologist or GP. They will be able to help determine what’s best for you!
What’s Is The Process?
The Pap test is a simple routine procedure. It will take place in a doctors clinic, and is a quick process. It may be a bit uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful.
Your doctor will ask you to lie on your back on an examination table and spread your legs with your feet comfortably placed on foot rests. They will then very carefully insert a small apparatus called a speculum into your vagina, which allows access to the cervix.
They will then use a soft brush to collect a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix. During the process you may feel a slight push – it can be uncomfortable but the entire procedure takes just a few minutes.
Are There Any Side Effects?
After the procedure, you may feel a bit of cramping, mild irritation and very light vaginal bleeding. This should not continue for more than a day after the test. If it does, be sure to get in touch with your doctor.
I’ve Heard There Have Been Some Changes To The Pap Test?
In December 2017, a number of changes were made to the Pap test in order to further reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. Where before the test was performed only to identify cancerous cells in the cervix, the new test looks for a HPV infection. You may see the procedure called a ‘Cervical Screening Test’ now.
This helps identify if you are at risk of cervical cancer much earlier than a Pap smear could. It is more accurate and is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Everyone between the ages of 25 and 74 should be tested every 5 years.
What Are The Results of a Pap Test?
After the procedure, the cells will be sent to a lab for analysis. There are two possible outcomes: a normal test or abnormal test. A normal test result will mean that no abnormal (cancerous or HPV) cells have been found. Your doctor may also say that your results were ‘negative’. This will mean you will not have to have another test for 5 years.
An abnormal test result will mean that cancerous or HPV cells have been found. If this is the case, the cells will be tested further. Depending on the results, you may need to have another test in 12 months time to assess whether the cells have cleared. You may need to have a follow-up procedure called a colposcopy to further assess the cervix.
During this 12 months it is completely natural to feel concerned. However, it’s important to remember that HPV infections are very common and that they usually pass on their own with no symptoms and without turning into cancer.
How Do I Prepare For a Pap Smear?
You can either organise for your test to take place during your annual gynaecological exam or on its own. If you are going to be menstruating during your appointment, you will need to tell your doctor and reschedule as this can affect the results of your test. It is also suggested that you avoid having sex, using spermicidal lubricants or other spermicidal products, or douching in the lead-up to the test to ensure greater accuracy of the results. During the procedure, it is important to stay relaxed and calm. If you have any concerns prior to the test, don’t hesitate to discuss them with you doctor.
If you have any questions about screening for cervical cancer, or would like to book an appointment for a Cervical Screening Test, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Dr Bevan Brown is one of the most trusted gynaecologists in Sydney. Personalised care and strong relationships with our patients is of utmost importance!