What is a Pap Smear?

Pap smear test and result information

Patient during a gynecological examination
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The Papanicolaou test, more commonly known as a Pap smear or Pap test, is a routine test used to screen for cervical cancer. The test looks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix that could indicate a precancerous condition or cervical cancer. In most cases, cervical cancer is a slow-progressing disease. It can take years for precancerous cells to develop into cancer. This is why having a regular Pap smear is so important for women.

When is a Pap Smear Performed?

A Pap smear is commonly performed as part of a gynecologic check-up. It is recommended for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old. In women over age 30, an HPV test is also recommended. It screens for the human papillomavirus, which is the usual cause of the precancerous changes of cervical cells.

If the Pap smear is negative, you can wait three years until the next Pap test. If you are over age 30 and both the Pap smear and the HPV test are negative, you can wait five years before your next screening tests.

Free or low-cost Pap smears are available in the United States for women who qualify, through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

A Pap smear is not a diagnostic test, but a screening tool. Screening tests identify abnormalities when the patient has no symptoms, while a diagnostic test helps identify the cause of symptoms and diagnosis of illness or disease.

The Pap smear helps identify women who are at high risk of developing cervical cancer. Since it is not considered a diagnostic tool, it is essential that women have one regularly.

How is a Pap Smear Done?

A Pap smear is usually done in an exam room during a routine gynecological checkup. During a Pap smear, a doctor or other skilled clinician removes a tiny amount of tissue from the cervix.

This is done by gently swabbing the cervix with a small mascara-like brush or cotton swab. It takes only seconds to gain a sample and it is not painful. Some women do experience a mild cramping sensation similar to menstrual cramps when this is done, however.

When Will I Get the Results of my Pap Smear?

Before leaving your appointment, ask your doctor or nurse how the office notifies patients of their results and when you should expect to get results back. Your results may be reported to you by mail, phone, or through electronic communications. It generally takes about two weeks for results to come back.

What Does a Negative Pap Smear Mean?

A negative result means you are at low risk of developing cervical cancer for the next few years. You should continue to get screened as your doctor recommends.

What Does an Abnormal Pap Smear Result Mean?

We look at this in detail: Understanding Abnormal Pap Smear Results


"Pap Test." WomensHealth.gov. Mar 2006. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

"Making Sense of Your Pap & HPV Test Results," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated August 10, 2015.