A Pap smear or Pap test is conducted as part of a woman’s routine health examination, after the age of 21 years. It is not a diagnostic test, but is a screening tool used to detect any abnormal cells in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
A Pap smear helps in early detection of serious medical conditions such as cervical cancer.
An abnormal Pap smear may indicate the presence of infection or abnormal cells called dysplasia, but does not necessarily denote cancer. Abnormal results highlight the requirement of supplementary testing to identify and confirm an underlying problem.
Usually abnormal cells do not produce any symptoms for the woman. Moreover, even the presence of HPV in an abnormal Pap smear is asymptomatic. Therefore, a regular Pap smear is beneficial in early detection of any abnormalities.
Following an abnormal Pap smear, the next step is further testing to confirm the cause of the abnormal cells. A repeat Pap smear or test for human papilloma virus (HPV), a major risk factor for cervical cancer, may also be recommended.
A Pap smear during pregnancy is very safe. In case of an abnormal Pap smear, a colposcopy can be performed during pregnancy. However, further treatments are delayed until the birth of the baby. Often, the birth process washes away the abnormal cervical cells.