[Skip to Content]

Pap Smears

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD

What Is a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear (or Pap test) is a medical test that helps doctors figure out if there are any problems with a girl's cervix (the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina).

The importance of the Pap smear is in the early detection, before there are any symptoms. Finding abnormal cells early can lead to treatment that prevents the development of cancer, and detecting cancer cells early enough can lead to greater chance of a cure.

Who Should Get a Pap Smear?

Teen girls don't need to get Pap smears unless their doctors think something's wrong. Once a girl turns 21, she should start getting regular Pap smears as a way to monitor her health. Women in their 20s with normal Pap smear results should have the test every 3 years. Some women might need to get tested more often, though. So ask your doctor.

The Pap smear shouldn't hurt, but it might be uncomfortable. The good news is, it's over quickly.

What Happens?

A doctor or uses a small brush to wipe a sample of mucus from the cervix. The sample is sent to a lab, where technicians check it for cells that aren't normal.

To do this, the doctor or NP will use a speculum to gently widen the vagina. A speculum is a thin piece of plastic or metal with a hinged piece on one end that allows it to open and close. If the speculum is metal, the doctor or nurse will warm it to make it more comfortable. The doctor or nurse will let you know when he or she is about to put the speculum in your vagina.

Once the speculum is in place, the doctor or nurse will gently open it up. Putting in and opening the speculum shouldn't hurt. But some women say that it can cause a bit of pressure and discomfort.

Because the vagina is surrounded by muscles that can contract or relax, the exam can be more comfortable if you relax the muscles in that area. Try doing some breathing exercises or focusing on relaxing the vaginal muscles. Sometimes humming your favorite song or chatting with the doctor or nurse can distract you and help you feel more relaxed.

After the speculum is in place, the doctor will shine a light inside the vagina to see the cervix. The doctor will gently touch the cervix with a small brush to pick up cells from that area. Some girls say it feels like a pinch.

After the doctor or nurse has collected the sample and removed the speculum, you'll be left alone to get dressed. Some women say that they bleed a tiny bit from the Pap smear after the exam, so they like to put a pantiliner in their underwear as they get dressed. This bleeding is no big deal — it's nothing like a period and it won't last.

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2017