5 Things You Should Know About Your Pap Test

Photographed By Megan Madden.
Ah, the pap smear. A rite of passage that people with vaginas just can't escape — or, seemingly, stop complaining about. No, you might not want to do it every day (and luckily, no one needs you to!), but you have to admit that it's an important part of your preventive care. And learning more about the test is the best way to calm your nerves, whether you're prepping for your first or your fifth.

First off, here's the basic rundown of what'll happen: After undressing and donning that sexy paper gown, you'll lie back and put your heels in the stirrups attached to the exam table. Then, your doctor will insert a speculum (that metal device that looks like a duck's bill) into your vagina. This tool helps keep the walls of your vagina apart while your doctor swabs cells from your cervix. This shouldn't hurt, but it may feel uncomfortable for a couple of seconds. The cells from the swab then go off to the lab for testing — and that's it! The whole thing should take just a few minutes.

The pap is also frequently combined with a basic pelvic and breast exam as part of your annual "well woman" visit. But the pap isn't actually recommended every year (more on that later) so if you're at your appointment during an off-year, feel free to use that time in whatever way would be most helpful to you. Ask any random questions that have popped up but didn't require a full visit, or just chat about how your chosen form of birth control's been working out.

But, for now, we're here to talk about that good ol' pap. Click through for five things you should know about this common and crucial preventive test.

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1. It's okay if your pap makes you anxious.

Even if this isn't your first pap ever, it's totally normal to be nervous about it. It's easy to feel vulnerable when someone is sticking a thing up a very private part of your body! And although most doctors are able to make the procedure as quick and painless as possible, there are, unfortunately, others who aren't so great at that.

But there are some things you can do to make it less scary. First, of course, is to tell your gyno if you're anxious. She'll be happy to talk you through exactly what will happen and any concerns you may have. She might decide to use a smaller speculum or warm it up so it's not so startling.

It's normal to feel a bit of pressure or brief discomfort during the test. But if you experience any severe pain, definitely tell your doctor as that could be a sign of a separate issue, such as a yeast infection.

If you've been through a few exams and it still bumps up your anxiety levels, you might want to try practicing on your own. You can even buy your own speculum (and a guide book, please!) to help you become more familiar with the sensation in a space that feels safer.
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2. Your pap is the first step in detecting cervical cancer.

Yep, that means it's important. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). But because HPV is so common — the most common STI, in fact — and doesn't cause symptoms in most cases, it doesn't make sense to regularly test people for HPV in an effort to prevent cervical cancer.

So we get the pap instead, which looks for any changes in your cervical cells that might signal cancer.

Cervical cancer is relatively rare, but also relatively deadly. According to recent data from the CDC, around 12,000 women are diagnosed with the disease every year and over 4,000 will die from it. So yeah, we'd say this one's serious.

But the challenge is that the early stages of cervical cancer don't have many (if any) obvious symptoms. So many women find out about their eventual diagnoses from these routine pap tests.

Although early detection doesn't guarantee an easy road to successful treatment, it can give you more time to prepare for that road.
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3. Abnormal results don't always mean something scary.

After your pap, you may get a call from your doctor's office saying that your results were "abnormal." Although it's hard not to get anxious af right that second, it's not necessarily a cause for panic — and it doesn't automatically mean you have cancer.

Sometimes it means the test wasn't done properly or your results are difficult to intepret, so you'll have to come in for a repeat. That could be because your gyno just didn't snag enough cells to complete the test. Other times, the swab may have picked up too many blood cells that are obscuring the cells that she actually needs to test.

You could also have genuinely abnormal cells that aren't a sign of cancer. For instance, if your test turns up atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS), your doctor may test for the presence of any serious viruses (such as HPV). If none show up, you don't have to worry about it.

In pretty much all cases, though, your doctor will require that you come back for further testing. Depending on the reason for your abnormal results, that might mean another pap or it could be a more involved exam of the cervical and vaginal tissues.
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4. Try not to have intercourse two days before your test.

There's really nothing that you have to do to prepare for a pap. Seriously, don't worry about shaving, and definitely don't douche (ever).

If possible, though, the Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding intercourse for two days before your exam simply because it could make it harder to actually see the cells due to irritation of the tissue and changes in cervical mucus.

Also, wondering if it's cool to show up while you're on your period? Gynos generally prefer it if you can avoid your heaviest flow days. So try to steer clear if you can, but don't feel like you have to rework your entire life to reschedule your pap. Doctors can still do the test, but your period might make it more difficult to get clear results, meaning you may have to come back for another round.
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5. You don't have to get one every year.

Absolutely still hate getting a pap? Well, the good news is that it's not an annual test. For young vagina owners with no other serious issues or risk factors, it's generally recommended that you get your pap once every three years. And once you get to age 30, you only have to get one every five years as long as you also get regular HPV testing.

But this is a relatively recent change. If your doctor still wants to do it every year, that's worth discussing. For some people, such as those who have had abnormal results in the past, you may need to have a pap more often. But for others, that's not totally necessary.