What is the Procedure and Purpose of a PAP Smear Test?

Until 19th century cervical cancer was considered a sexually transmitted disease. A type of cancer that invades the cells of the cervix; the lower part of a woman’s uterus that connects it to the vagina, was one of the leading causes of death in women aged 35-44 years old. The culprit was the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which can indeed be sexually transmitted. But what physicians failed to understand that this was actually cancer, that later metastasized to different body parts like liver, bladder, lungs and rectum causing untimely death in young women.


It will not be until the late 1980s, when the role of HPV in causing cervical cancer will be acknowledged. But, a screening tool invented by Dr. George Papanicolaou in 1920s, will make it easier to detect this disease much before it progresses, leading to timely cure.

Today the Pap test or Pap smear test is advised to all sexually active women at least once in a year. Cervical cancer remains the fourth most prevalent cancer types in women, accounting for 6.6% of all female cancers worldwide in 2018, according to estimates by the WHO. India (with 97K cases) along with China, contributed more than a third of global cervical cancer cases in 2018, according to a study on The Lancet journal.

Pap smear is one of the best screening tools to catch this disease in its infancy. Often women don’t talk about their physical problems, especially related to gynaecology. But such problems should not be ignored, and women shouldn’t feel they need to adjust to any discomfort, say the best gynaecologists in Chennai. They recommend visiting a physical at the earliest to understand ailments and know more about options.

Procedure of Pap Smear Test

As with various cancers, early detection is vital to increase the survival rate. The introduction of Pap smear reduced cervical cancer deaths by over 70% in the last 50 years, according to the American Cancer Society.

The best time to have a pap test is when a woman is not menstruating. The doctor may ask to avoid sexual intercourse, vaginal creams or medications, douching and contraceptives at least 2 days before the test. On the day of the test, the woman will be asked to lie on the examination table with her with her knees up and bent, and feet apart. An instrument called speculum will be inserted by a gynecologist to open the vagina, so that they can see the vaginal walls and cervix clearly. Then they will scrape off or collect cervical cells or mucus from the cervix, using a cervical brush or a scraper. These cells will be sent off to the lab for testing for presence of any abnormal cells or malignant cells.

The procedure is not painful, except for minor discomfort. Most women do not feel a thing except slight pressure. Staying relaxed and breathing slowly will help the process get over sooner.

Who Needs to Have a Pap smear?

In general, gynecologists advise to start the test as soon as one is sexually active. Women aged 21 to 29 need to consider having this test once every 3 years, and those above 30 to 65 years; once every 5 years. Women are at increased risk of contracting the virus, if they are HIV positive, have multiple sexual partners, have a previous diagnosis of cancerous cells in a Pap smear or have a suppressed immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic corticosteroid use. In that case, the doctor may ask to increase the frequency of the test. However, nowadays doctors are urging everyone above 21, regardless of sexual activity to get a test done. This is because the HPV has been found to be dormant for years, before becoming active suddenly.

It’s vital to remember that presence of abnormal cells doesn’t mean that one has cervical cancer. This depends on the type of cells discovered. For instance, atypical glandular cells need further testing to determine whether they are cancerous or not.

Nevertheless, Pap smear test remains a vital safeguard against an aggressive disease, which claims millions of lives worldwide. Nowadays, women can opt for the HPV vaccine too at an early age to stay protected.

Gynecological health needs to be a priority among women. It’s best to begin visiting a gynecologist from an early age, when one begins menstruating. This allows time to build up a relationship, enabling woman to be more comfortable to ask questions and discuss their problems. Consult the best gynecologist in Chennai to maintain good health.

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