A Pap smear is a test that can detect precancerous and cancerous cells within the cervix, the neck of the uterus.
Pap smears are often performed as part of a well-woman exam. The Pap smear itself will take no more than a couple of minutes. As the patient comfortably lays with her legs positioned in the stirrups (the same position used during a standard pelvic exam) the doctor will use a speculum to dilate the cervix. Then, the doctor does a scraping of the cervix to gather a cell sample. The cell sample will then be analyzed to look for precancerous or cancerous cells.
Abnormal Pap smears are actually not uncommon, so patients should try not to panic about an abnormal test result. An abnormal Pap smear does not equal cancer and, in fact, most people who get abnormal Pap test results do not have cancer. The abnormal Pap smear means that there are cellular changes that need to be watched closely or investigated further.
In the majority of cases, the cellular changes occur because of human papillomavirus (HPV). These cellular changes often resolve on their own. However, some kinds of HPV are connected with cervical cancer, so the doctor will typically want to perform a biopsy. In some cases, the cellular changes happen because of an infection, especially bacterial or yeast infections. Changes that happen during menopause may also result in abnormal pap smears.
The doctor will perform a colposcopy and possible soft biopsies. If the cause of the test results is an infection, it can be treated using antibiotics in many cases. If the results are harmless cell changes, they may be allowed to resolve on their own. The doctor will usually order another Pap smear in 6 months to a year.
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