The Pap test is a way to examine cells collected from the cervix. The main purpose of the Pap test is to find abnormal cell changes that may arise from cervical cancer or before it develops.

A Pap test and pelvic examination are important parts of a woman’s routine health care because they can detect abnormalities that may lead to invasive cancer of the cervix. These abnormalities can be treated before cancer develops. Most invasive cancers of the cervix can be prevented if women have Pap tests regularly. Also, as with many types of cancer, cancer of the cervix is more likely to be treated successfully if it is detected early.

Women should talk with their doctor about when and how often they should have a Pap test. Current general guidelines recommend that women have a Pap test at least once every three years, beginning about three years after they begin to have sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21. Experts recommend waiting about three years after the start of sexual activity to avoid over-treatment for common, temporary abnormal changes. It is safe to wait for three years, because cervical cancer usually develops slowly. Cervical cancer is extremely rare in women under age 25.

Women ages 65 to 70 who have had at least three normal Pap tests and no abnormal Pap tests in the last 10 years may decide, after talking with their clinician, to stop having Pap tests. Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus and cervix) do not need to have a Pap test, unless the surgery was done as a treatment for pre-cancer or cancer.

A woman should have this test when she is not menstruating; the best time is between 10 and 20 days after the first day of the last menstrual period. For about 2 days before a Pap test, she should avoid douching or using vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies (except as directed by a doctor). These may wash away or hide abnormal cells.

A doctor may simply describe Pap test results to a patient as “abnormal.” Cells on the surface of the cervix sometimes appear abnormal but are very rarely cancerous. It is important to remember that abnormal conditions do not always become cancerous, and some conditions are more likely to lead to cancer than others. A woman may want to ask her doctor for specific information about her Pap test result and what the result means.

The Pap test is a screening test and, like any such test, it is not 100-percent accurate. Although false positive and false negative results do not occur very often, they can cause anxiety and can affect a woman’s health.

A false positive Pap test means that a patient is told she has abnormal cells, but the cells are actually normal. A false negative Pap test occurs when a specimen is called normal, but the woman has a significant abnormality that was missed. A false negative Pap test may delay the diagnosis and treatment of a precancerous condition. However, regular screening helps to compensate for the false negative result. If abnormal cells are missed at one time, chances are good that the cells will be detected the next time.

Disclaimer: This is only general information. A doctor should be contacted if you need any medical advice or if medical decisions need to be made.