A Pap test is used to look for cancerous conditions that might be developing in the cervix or vagina. These tests use a sample of cells taken from a woman's cervix or vagina. It is a simple, quick, and painless process and one of the best methods of detecting cancer or precancer of the uterine cervix. A Pap smear is not intended to detect other forms of cancer, such as those of the ovary, vagina, or uterus. These types of cancer may be looked for during a gynecologic pelvic exam, which usually is done at the same time as the Pap smear.
Most often, the Pap test is done during a routine pelvic exam. First, the doctor will examine the outside of the patient's genital and rectal areas, including the urethra to ensure everything looks normal. Then a small brush or swab is used to collect cells from the cervix. A second sample is also collected on the surface of the cervix as part of the Pap smear. After the cells are taken, they are sent out to a lab to be evaluated further. The cells are placed on a glass slide and examined under a microscope to look for premalignant or cancerous changes. An abnormal Pap smear can indicate precancerous changes. This will increase the chances of treatment being effective before cancer develops.
The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) both recommend that women ages 21-65 receive cervical cancer screenings every three to five years. After age 65, consult with your physician about your screening needs. Women with certain risk factors should be screened more frequently. These factors include being HIV positive, having a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, having an organ transplant, or chronic steroid use.
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