A Pap smear test is generally used to screen for cancerous conditions that could be developing in the cervix or vagina. These tests take a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix or vagina to be used for examination. The procedure is simple, quick, and painless and is considered one of the best methods to detect cancer or precancer of the uterine cervix. A Pap smear is not meant to detect other forms of cancer, such as those of the ovary, vagina, or uterus, but these types of cancer can be looked for during a gynecologic pelvic exam, which usually is done at the same time as the Pap smear
The Pap smear test is generally performed during a routine pelvic exam. At first, the doctor will examine the patient's outer genital and rectal areas, including the urethra, to ensure that nothing looks out of the ordinary. Next, a small brush or swab will be 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. The cells are placed on a glass slide and examined under a microscope to look for premalignant or cancerous changes. After the cells are taken, they are sent out to a lab to be evaluated further. An abnormal Pap smear can indicate precancerous changes. If the Pap smear signifies that cancer is evident, the Pap smear will increase the chances of treatment being effective before cancer develops.
It is recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) that women ages 21-65 receive cervical cancer screenings every three years. After age 65 women should consult with their physicians about scheduling their 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.