A Pap smear is a simple test that checks for early changes to the cells of a woman’s cervix. These changes may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.

All women aged between 18 and 70 years who have ever been sexually active should have a Pap smear every two years. This includes women who have had the HPV vaccine because the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that cause cancer or those you may have been exposed to before having the vaccination.  See HPV and HPV vaccinations for more information.

Regular Pap smears save many women each year from cervical cancer. About eight to 10 women who develop cervical cancer do not have regular Pap smears or have never had one.

Women who are in a long-term relationship, or who are no longer sexually active, and lesbian women should all have regular Pap tests. Some women need to continue having regular Pap tests after a hysterectomy. If you are not sure speak to a health professional for more information.

During the procedure, which only takes a few minutes, the doctor or nurse gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina, so that the cervix can be seen more clearly. A small spatula or tiny brush is then inserted to collect cells from the cervix. These cells are smeared onto a glass slide which is sent to the laboratory for testing. The results are usually available within a week.

The procedure might feel a bit uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt. If it does hurts at any stage throughout the procedure tell the doctor/nurse immediately.

Sometimes, the laboratory will report that the sample was unsatisfactory and another Pap test has to be taken. There may not have been enough cells collected, or the cells may have been hidden by blood or mucous. This doesn’t mean your Pap test is abnormal.

For information about Pap smears go to Cancer Screening Australia and the Cancer Council.

Abnormal Pap smear test

If the results of your Pap smear are abnormal this does not mean you have cancer. Often abnormal results are caused by an inflammation or infection that will clear up naturally. Sometimes women may need to have a Pap smear more often than every two years.

The Pap smear can only screen for possible problems not diagnose them. If your cervix appears abnormal during the pelvic examination or you have an abnormal Pap test, your doctor may organise for you to have a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a simple procedure that is performed in a doctor’s office. The doctor uses a machine called a colposcope, which is large, electric microscope that is positioned approximately 30cm from your vagina. A bright light on the end of the colposcope allows the doctor to see the cervix more clearly. The procedure is painless and takes about 10 to 15 minutes.

If the doctor sees abnormal cells they will take a biopsy. A biopsy involves taking a sample of the abnormal cell tissue from the cervix. It is not usually painful but may be uncomfortable. The sample is sent to the laboratory for testing. When the results come back, your doctor will recommend either treatment, another colposcopy in the future, more frequent Pap smears or no further action will be necessary.

Some types of abnormal cells may require specialist treatment. Make sure you talk to your doctor, nurse or health worker about what is best for you.