A pap smear is a test for cervical cancer. The test is a laboratory examination conducted on cells that are gently scraped from the cervix during a pelvic examination. The cells are spread on a glass slide and examined under a microscope. The test will identify atypical cells, which might indicate a condition like cancer cells or HPV infection, the human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and cervical cancer.
The current recommendation is that women should begin having pap smears at age 21. After the first test, you have two different options. You can have a Pap test every three years to check for cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers grow very slowly, and this interval offers sufficient time to catch a type of cancer. If you are over age 30 and have both a Pap test and HPV testing, you can then be tested every five years if both are normal.
If your period starts, reschedule your pap smear, as blood can make the results inaccurate. If the bleeding is unexpected, however, go in for the appointment and tell the doctor so he can discern if there is a problem or not. Tell your doctor about any and all medications you're taking, if you've ever had an abnormal pap test, or if you might be pregnant. Don't douche, have intercourse, or use tampons in the 24 hours prior to the pap test. Empty your bladder just before the pap test.
If you have had three negative pap tests within the previous 10 years and have reached the age of 65, you no longer need to continue having pap tests. Women who have had a total hysterectomy where the uterus and cervix are removed and have not had abnormal pap smears or pelvic cancers do not need to have pap smears. It is best to discuss with your doctor when and how often to scheduled pap smears to make sure problems aren't likely to arise.