Demystifying the Pap Smear: Why These Tests are So Important

Carbon Health Editorial Team
May 12, 2021
4 mins

Many people dread the news that they’re due for their latest Pap smear (also called a Pap test). Although Pap smears are a critical defense against diseases including cervical cancer, the intimate nature and potential discomfort of a pelvic exam make some people uneasy. 

As part of a routine pelvic exam, your doctor may conduct a Pap smear, which involves collecting cells from your cervix — the opening of your uterus, above your vagina — and having those cells tested for precancerous or cancerous processes. 

Fortunately, most pelvic exams take a minimal amount of time to complete, and for most people they are recommended only once every three years. If you have a Pap smear or pelvic exam coming up, read on to understand the details of these tests, what sensations you may experience, and what results you can expect from your doctor after the tests are complete.

What Does a Pap Smear Test For?

Depending on their body, most people assigned female at birth start getting tested for cervical cancer with a Pap smear at around the age of 21. The Pap smear is usually just one aspect of a pelvic exam, which involves your doctor physically and visually checking the exterior and interior of your pelvic organs, including your vagina, uterus, cervix, and rectum. They’re looking to ensure that there’s no discharge, redness, tenderness, or swelling, and no other issues that could indicate a problem.

During your Pap smear, your doctor will use a speculum to open your vaginal walls so they can see your inner vagina and cervix. They will then use a small wand or swab to collect cells from your cervix. These cells are sent to a lab where they are analyzed for abnormalities that might indicate cervical cancer or HPV. If you have an abnormal Pap smear result, your doctor may ask you to come in to discuss the results, and arrange for further tests.

+ How Often Should I Get a Pap Smear?

For most people, having a Pap smear and pelvic exam every three years between the ages of 21 and 65 is recommended. If you have a history of abnormal Pap smears that showed precancerous cells, or if you are at greater risk of cervical cancer, your doctor may advise getting examined more frequently. 

What to Expect from a Pap Smear

Understanding the steps of a pelvic exam and Pap smear can help make this procedure feel less intimidating. Being tense or anxious can make feelings of discomfort worse. Here’s a clear outline of what you can expect during a standard Pap smear.

First, your doctor will conduct a visual examination of your external sex organs. 

Next, they will use a speculum to open your vaginal walls so they can see inside and view the cervix, and they will use a swab to gently collect some cells. For some people, the pressure of the speculum can be uncomfortable. Deep breathing may help your muscles relax. 

Then, wearing gloves, they will perform a bimanual exam: they will use one hand to press on your uterus while simultaneously using fingers of the other hand to examine the shape and size of your ovaries, through your vagina.

Most of the time, the pelvic exam and Pap smear take less than 10 minutes.

Navigating Pap Smears and Pelvic Exams After Sexual Assault

People who have experienced sexual assault, rape, or other forms of sexual violence may find pelvic exams deeply uncomfortable. For some, they can bring back distressing memories of past trauma.  

If you have experienced sexual violence and are anxious about your next gynecological exam, you are not alone. There are many resources available to help you. Remember, your healthcare provider should always allow you to:

     • Bring a trusted family member or friend to accompany you

     • Request a provider of a specific gender

     • Request that your provider slowly and carefully explain what they are doing before they begin and as they conduct the exam

     • Ask questions at any time

     • Stop the examination at any time  

(For more resources and information for people who have survived sexual violence, visit RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.) 

If you need to schedule a routine pelvic exam or Pap smear, book a primary care appointment through the Carbon Health app today.  

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.