What is a Pap test?                                   

  • The Pap test or Pap smear is a sample of cells taken from the cervix or vagina with a small brush and spatula and is typically not painful. The sample is sent to a laboratory, where it is analyzed under a microscope for abnormal cells that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.  The sample may also be tested for HPV.   

How often should you have a Pap test?

​Current recommended screening guidelines include the following options.  Your provider will discuss which option is best for you.

  • Age 21 and over:  Women should get a Pap test every 3 years.  

  •  Age 30-65:   It is preferred that you have both a Pap test and HPV test,  If both tests are negative, the next screening is in 5 years.

  • Over age 65:  If in the last 10 years, you have had 3 negative Pap tests or 2 negative co-tests (Pap + HPV) and no abnormal tests, you can stop having routine cervical screening tests.

  • Women with certain risk factors, such as HIV, chronic steroid use, weakened immune system, DES exposure, or previous abnormal Pap or HPV tests may require more frequent testing, so follow your provider's instructions about what is best for you. 

  • Cervical screening is just one part of your annual woman's visit. Even when Pap or HPV tests are not needed, it is recommended you see your provider for your yearly women's health visit.


How accurate is the Pap test?

  • The Pap test has been one of the most successful screening tests in history, but it is only successful if it is repeated over time as it can miss up to 50% of disease.  

  • It can detect cells that are mildly or severely abnormal, so you can be followed more closely (or treated if necessary) to prevent cervical cancer. 

  • There are several things you can do to help make the Pap test as accurate as possible. These include avoidance of sex, douching and vaginal creams for 48 hours before the test.

  • Adding the HPV test to your Pap test improves screening accuracy.  The HPV test can detect nearly 100% of high-risk HPV types and pre-cancers, so be sure to ask about HPV testing and typing.

What can cause an abnormal Pap test?

  • An HPV infection causes the abnormal cell changes that are detected in the Pap test.  These changes can be reported as mild, moderate or severe or, in some cases, inconclusive.

  • Your provider may recommend you repeat the Pap test and HPV test in one year, or you may need to have a colposcopy to be sure everything is okay.

What's the next step after an abnormal Pap test?

The most important thing to do is follow any instructions your provider gives.  


To learn more about what your Pap test means, click here.

If you need a colposcopy, learn more about what to expect and how to prepare.

Learn about what your abnormal Pap test means