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Pap test

Overview of pap test

A “Pap test,” or “Pap smear,” is a screening test for cervical cancer. Your doctor takes a sample of cervical cells during a pelvic exam by inserting a swab through the vagina to the cervix (the opening of the uterus). The sample then goes to a laboratory for testing.

Our patient-focused gynecologists at Dignity Health perform Pap smears all year round. Find a Doctor near you today and make an appointment.

Why it’s necessary

The primary reason to have a Pap smear is to screen for precancerous cells and cervical cancer in the cervix. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection causes almost all cases of cervical cancer.

The Pap smear identifies these and other abnormal changes in cervical cells. Your gynecologist or primary care doctor should perform a Pap test as part of your routine gynecologic exam.

The frequency of testing depends upon your age:

  • Women older than 65 may be able to stop Pap smear tests, depending upon their medical history.
  • Women ages 30 to 65 should have a Pap test along with HPV testing every five years. A Pap test alone every three years is an alternative.
  • Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap smear every three years.

Some women may need more frequent testing, depending upon their risk of cervical cancer. If you have the following conditions, your doctor might recommend more frequent screening:

  • A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer, or history of precancerous cells
  • HIV infection
  • Family history of cervical cancer
  • Weakened immune system
  • History of smoking
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, before birth
  • Exposure to high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Having given birth to more than three children
  • Long-term oral contraceptive use

Your Dignity Health doctor may also use a Pap smear to diagnose vaginal or uterine infections.

Common conditions treated with a Pap test

The Pap test is most frequently used as screening for cervical cancer. It can also be used to diagnose bacterial, fungal, or viral infections of the uterus. Based on the results of your Pap test, further treatment may be necessary. The Pap test itself is not a treatment for cervical cancer or other infections of the uterus or cervix.


Pap tests are generally very safe. The most significant risk with Pap tests is that abnormal cells that are present are not detected by the test, also known as a false-negative result. Delaying the discovery of abnormal cells will delay treatment. This is why it is essential to have frequent checkups. It takes up to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop, so if one test misses the cells, the next will likely identify them.

On the opposite end, a Pap test may show abnormal cells when they are not actually present, a false positive. If this happens, your doctor will simply run other tests in addition to another Pap test to clarify results.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.