Pap Test Q&A

Frequently asked questions (and answers!) regarding the Pap smear.

What is a pap test?

A pap test involves collecting cells from the cervix using a small brush. The cells are examined to look for abnormalities that are possible precursors of  cervical cancer. Using the same specimen, it is also possible to screen for the HPV virus, the leading cause of  precancerous cells.

Who should get a pap?

If you are between the age of 21 and 65 and you have a cervix, your should get a pap every 3 years. If you are over the age of 30, this interval may be increased to every 5 years if you are co-tested for the HPV virus at the time of the pap. This does not replace your annual visit with your physician.

What causes cervical cancer?

Most cervical cancer are caused by the HPV virus, which is transmitted sexually. The HPV virus is also responsible for causing genital warts, along with other forms of cancer. There are many types of HPV, some much worse than other types. Knowing which specific type you have been exposed to can allow us to counsel patients in terms of risk and in how often screening programs are recommended. There is no cure for HPV although the vaccine, Gardasil, can prevent HPV infection from many of the more severe types. Most exposures to HPV are silent and go years without symptoms and may never cause problems. But only a pap smear can give reasonable reassurance.

Do I need a pap if I am not sexually active, if I am in a monogamous relationship or a same-sex relationship? What about if I received the HPV vaccine?

Yes, regardless of your relationship status, sexual activity or vaccination, a pap test is recommended if you have a cervix.

What if I don’t have a cervix?

The pap test was not designed to screen outside the cervix but can be useful, particularly for identifying HPV and may be useful normally no more often than every 5 years.

My pap came back abnormal! Now what?

Don’t panic. Most pap smear abnormalities are not cancer or even anything precancerous. The Pap smear is a screening test, meaning more evaluation is necessary. Dr. Bowers will discuss with you the appropriate course of action. This can range from a closer evaluation of the cervix called colposcopy to removal a cervical polyp to hormonal treatment with estrogens. In general, most pap smear abnormalities can be resolved but must be evaluated!

Is there anything else that I can do to decrease my risk of cervical cancer?

Absolutely! If you smoke, quit! Get vaccinated against the HPV virus. Barriers, such as condoms, are not 100% effective at protecting against HPV but should always be used during any sexual activity.

I am due for an annual exam.  What should I do?

Call 650-570-2270 and Michelle will gladly get you an appointment in our beautiful Burlingame office!