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What is a Pap Smear and How is it Done?

written by: Diana Cooper • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 9/24/2010

What is a pap smear test and how is a pap smear done? Find answers to these questions and more in this important article to help prevent cervical cancer.

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    What is a Pap Smear Test?

    How a Pap Smear is Done (image in the public domain) The pap smear test (known as the Papanicolaou test) was invented by a Greek doctor named Georgios Papanikolaou. In 1923, Doctor Papanikolaou informed other doctors about this technique of gathering cells from the vaginal tract and examining them under a microscope to identify cervical cancer.

    The pap smear test can detect precancerous and cancerous cells as well as infections that can turn into cancer cells. If signs of cervical cancer are caught early, the chances of curing it are very high.

    Diagram from The American Academy of Family Physicians (click on image to enlarge)

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    How is a Pap Smear Done?

    Now that you know what a pap smear is, let's learn how a pap smear is done.

    The pap smear test is done during a pelvic exam. It is a quick and simple test that may be uncomfortable for some women. Your health care provider will have you lie down with your feet in stirrups and he or she will insert a speculum into your vagina to open it so they can see inside the vaginal canal. The health care provider will then gently scrape the external and internal parts of the cervix with a spatula to collect cells. The cells are placed on a glass slide and sent to a lab for examination.

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    What Else do I Need to Know?

    Schedule your pap smear test when you are most likely not to have your period. Blood can affect the accuracy of the test.

    Twenty four hours before having a pap smear test done, you need to avoid the following:

    • having intercourse
    • douching
    • wearing tampons
    • taking a bath

    Urinate right before the test.

    After the pap smear, you may experience some discomfort and a little bit of bleeding.

    It can take up to three weeks before you get your results.

    If you do not have health insurance or can not afford to have a pap smear test done, visit this website or call 1-800-232-4636 to find a place near you that offers free or low-cost pap smear tests. You can also call your local health department.

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    Disclaimer

    Please read this disclaimer regarding the information contained within this article.