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Pap Test

What To Think About

  • Normal Pap test results do not completely rule out the presence of abnormal cells (dysplasia) or cervical cancer. The test may fail to find abnormal cells when they are present (false-negative). Having 3 normal Pap tests in a row reduces the chance of false-negative results. Or the test may show abnormal cells when they are not present (false-positive). Talk with your doctor about the meaning of your Pap test results.
  • Some women with abnormal Pap tests or women older than age 30 may be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes genital warts. Some high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. The HPV test may or may not be done at the same time as the Pap test. The results of the HPV test can help doctors decide if further tests or treatments are needed. To learn more, see the topic Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test.
  • A liquid-based Pap test method also may be done. For this method, the tools used to collect the cells from the cervix are washed with a special liquid that is saved and sent to a lab for examination under a microscope. The cells collected in this way can also be tested for HPV. But studies show that liquid-based Pap tests may produce more false-positive results.
  • A Pap test alone is not used to diagnose dysplasia or cervical cancer. Other tests are needed, such as a colposcopy camera.gif. To learn more, see the topic Colposcopy and Cervical Biopsy.
  • A Pap test is not used to screen for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or cancer other than cervical cancer. If an STI is suspected, other specialized testing may be needed to confirm a diagnosis.
  • Vaginal self-exam (VSE) may help you better understand your body, know what is normal for you, and find early symptoms of infections or other abnormal conditions that might mean you need to see a doctor. VSE should be used along with (but not replace) a regular pelvic exam and Pap test done by a doctor. To learn more, see the topic Vaginal Self-Examination (VSE).

Other Works Consulted

  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2012). Screening for cervical cancer. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 131. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 120(5): 1222–1238.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Genital HPV infection. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/std/HPV/STDFact-HPV.htm.

  • Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.

  • Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

  • Runowicz CD (2011). Cervical cancer prevention and screening. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 18, chap. 19. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.

  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2012). Screening for cervical cancer: Summary of recommendations. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspscerv.htm.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: December 12, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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