Annual gynecological exams are an important part of preventive wellness for women, giving you the opportunity to discuss any health changes or evolving needs with our practitioners. During these yearly visits, you’ll also receive a Pap smear, a special type of screening that can detect abnormal cervical cells. Here’s what you should know about the test.
What Is a Pap Smear?
During a Pap smear, your provider will gently remove cells from the cervix with a specifically designed brush. Though you may experience brief, minor discomfort, this brushing is typically done within 15 seconds or less.
Once the cells are extracted from the cervix, medical experts will inspect them under a microscope most specifically for signs of cervical dysplasia, or precancerous changes. The National Cancer Institute further notes that Pap smears can also detect other abnormalities in the cervix, including infections and inflammation.
Why Is the Annual Pap Smear So Important?
The sooner abnormal cervical cells are detected, the earlier doctors can determine the cause and treat the condition before cancer develops. For instance, an abnormal Pap smear may necessitate repeat testing within shorter time intervals or call for a biopsy to determine the root issue and inform treatment decisions.
Annual testing ensures any changes are detected as early as possible. As Johnathan Lancaster, MD, PhD, and chair of the department of women’s oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute explained to Everyday Health, “Like all medical tests, Pap smears are not 100% accurate. This reinforces the importance of having regular Paps, so that even if one Pap misses an early abnormal change, it’s likely to be picked up at the next Pap.”
Fortunately, cervical cancer is largely preventable through both screenings and vaccinations. While it was once the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., the Pap test has drastically decreased cervical cancer rates by helping doctors find changes early, when they’re most treatable.
Going for an annual Pap smear also allows you and your doctor to discuss human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer, and whether or not you are at risk or should be tested.
How to Prepare for Your Pap Smear
Women 21 and older should be receiving routine Pap smears as part of their annual gynecological exam. If you’re due for yours, here are a few tips to consider:
- Try to plan your appointment around your menstrual period. Blood and tissue swelling could make it more difficult to get an accurate assessment of cervical cells.
- Ask if you can empty your bladder before the test. You may need to provide a urine sample during your appointment, so speak with a nurse first.
- Avoid intercourse, vaginal medications, or putting any substances (including spermicidal creams) two days prior to your appointment to avoid obscuring abnormal cells.
At Avant Gynecology, we aim to make women’s annual care as comfortable as possible with an inviting atmosphere and gentle, caring practitioners who are ready to answer any questions you may have. If you’re due for an annual exam, contact us at (404) 352-2850 or schedule an appointment online.