Happy Pappy: What does a Pap smear involve?

Dear Sexpert,

My best friend just went in to McCosh for her routine Pap smear. Is this is something that I might need to get as well? I am not sure what a Pap smear is, what it detects and whether I should get one.

-Happy Pappy

Dear Happy Pappy,

Thank you for your question. It is great that you and your friend can talk openly about sexual health. No matter your sexual history, speaking with a health care provider will help you determine when is the best time to start getting a Pap smear and help answer any other questions you might have about your sexual and reproductive health. Staying proactive about preventative care and asking questions is important.

A Pap smear, Papanicolaou test or Pap test is used to detect cellular changes or abnormal cells on the cervix. These cells run the risk of becoming precancerous or cancerous. Pap smears can detect non-cancerous changes as well. The United States Preventative Service Task Force (USPSTF) recommend the Pap smear test for women starting at the age of 21 and then every three years regardless of sexual activity. Recommendations were recently updated since it has been found that women under the age of 21 were less likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and if abnormal cervical cells were present, they were more likely to resolve on their own.

To schedule a Pap smear or talk with a provider about other sexual and reproductive health questions, make a Sexual Health and Wellness (SHAW) appointment online  or call 609-258-3141.

Since a Pap smear detects changes to cells in the cervix, let’s review what cervical cancer is and how it develops. Current research shows that certain high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) are the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is typically transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Skin-to-skin contact occurs when an infected site of one individual’s skin (e.g., the genitals of an individual with HPV) comes into direct contact with skin or a mucous membrane (e.g., mouth, eyes, anus, genitals, etc.) of an uninfected person’s body.

A Pap smear is a useful tool at identifying abnormal cells early so that treatment can occur to prevent the development of cervical cancer. Results of a Pap smear are straightforward: a “negative result” is also described as normal; this means that no abnormal cells were detected. In the event that abnormal cells are found, it may be recommended to do further testing. Depending on the result, follow up testing may include an HPV test. Although HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer, testing positive does not mean that the cancer will develop. In most cases it  takes years for abnormal cells to develop into cervical cancer. The immune system will fight HPV and the abnormal cells can resolve themselves on their own.

Thank you for your question! It’s important to talk openly about health especially since many of your friends and classmates are experiencing similar things at a similar time.


~ The Sexpert

Information regarding screening retrieved from U.S. Preventative Services