What Is a Pap Test?

A Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is an exam a doctor uses to test for cervical cancer in women. It can also reveal changes in your cervical cells that may turn into cancer later.

What Happens During the Test?

It’s done in your doctor’s office or clinic and takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

You’ll lie on a table with your feet placed firmly in stirrups. You’ll spread your legs, and your doctor will insert a metal or plastic tool (speculum) into your vagina. He’ll open it so that it widens the vaginal walls. This allows him to see your cervix. Your doctor will use a swab to take a sample of cells from your cervix. He’ll place them into a liquid substance in a small jar, and send them to a lab for review.

The Pap test doesn’t hurt, but you may feel a little pinch or a bit of pressure.

What Do the Results Mean?

Your doctor will get them within a few days. They’ll come back either negative or positive.

A negative result is actually a good thing. That means your doctor didn’t find any strange-looking cells on your cervix. You won’t need another Pap until you’re due for your next scheduled one.

If your results come back positive, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. You could have slight inflammation. Or, you might have minor cell changes (doctors call this “dysplasia”). These often clear up on their own, so your doctor may take a “wait and see” approach. He’ll may suggest you have another Pap test in a few months. If the abnormal cells haven’t cleared up by then, your doctor may order more tests. These might include a procedure called a colposcopy.

During a colposcopy, your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina, just like he did for the Pap test. This time, he’ll look at the cervix with a colposcope. That’s a tool that has a lens and a bright light that allow your doctor to get a better look at your cervix. Your doctor will swab your cervix with vinegar or some other liquid solution. It’ll highlight any suspicious-looking areas. Your doctor will be able to see them through the lens on the colposcope.

If he finds areas that don’t look right, he’ll take sample (“biopsy”). He’ll send the sample to a lab for further testing. He may swab your cervix with a chemical solution to limit bleeding.


How Often Should I Have a Pap Test?

Doctors recommend you begin Pap testing at age 21. You should have the test every 3years from age 21 to 65. You may choose to combine you Pap testing with being tested for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) starting at age 30. If you do so, then you can be tested every five years instead. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and it’s linked to cervical cancer.

If you have certain health concerns, your doctor may recommend you have a Pap more often. Some of these include:

Talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns. He’ll let you know for sure.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on September 17, 2018



Mayo Clinic: “Pap Smear.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Pap Smear.”

PubMed Health: “Papanicolaou Test (Pap Smear).”

U.S. National Library of Medicine.

CDC: “Genital HPV Infection -- Fact Sheet.”

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