Pap smears are a lifesaving screening tool for cervical cancer. The test can detect abnormal cells in the cervix before they become cancerous. Healthcare providers often perform HPV tests during Pap tests to check for HPV, one of the leading causes of cervical cancer. An unclear or abnormal Pap smear result may be a sign of infection, another problem, or cancer.
What is a Pap smear test?
A Pap smear (also called a Pap test) screens for cervical cancer. The test checks for abnormal cells in the cervix that are cancerous or have the potential to become cancerous. During a Pap smear, your healthcare provider takes cells from your cervix to examine under a microscope for signs of cancer. A Pap smear may also detect certain infections and inflammation. The test is named for an American physician, Dr. George Papanicolaou, who developed the Pap smear.
What is the cervix?
The cervix is the lower part of your uterus that connects to your vaginal canal. Sperm travels through your vaginal canal and cervix to your uterus to fertilize eggs. During pregnancy, your cervix closes to keep the fetus in your uterus. The cervix opens during childbirth. When you aren’t pregnant, your cervix makes mucus to keep infection-causing bacteria out of your body.
What can a Pap smear detect?
Healthcare providers perform Pap smears as part of a pelvic exam. The test checks for:
• Cervical cancer.
• Potentially precancerous cells in the cervix (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia).
• Human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that increases the risk of cervical cancer.
What’s the difference between a pelvic exam and a Pap test?
During a pelvic exam, your healthcare provider examines and feels (palpates) your uterus, ovaries and other parts of the female reproductive system. This examination helps your provider identify infections, problems and cancer if visible. Your provider may also perform STI tests during a pelvic exam. A pelvic exam doesn’t always include a Pap smear.
What’s the difference between a Pap smear and an HPV test?
HPV tests check for certain types of the virus that increase your cervical cancer risk. HPV is a common STI that affects approximately 79 million Americans. There are many different types of HPV. Not all cause cancer.
Providers can do HPV tests and Pap tests at the same time, using the same steps (a gentle scrape of your cervix for cell samples). When sending these samples to a lab, your provider specifies whether the lab specialist (pathologist) should check for precancerous or cancerous cells (Pap smear), HPV or both (a co-test).
Does a Pap smear detect STIs?