Getting your first pap smear can feel intimidating, but it truly just sounds scarier than it is. A pap smear is simply collecting cells from one’s cervix, and is important to not skip out on.
One should begin to get pap smears once they are either 21 years old, sexually active, or earlier, depending on personal preference.
Many women tend to go sooner rather than later since pap smears help to detect vaginal changes, precancerous, and invasive cancer cases in its early stages. This means the sooner things are detected, the sooner they can be treated. Some diseases can worsen faster than others.
For example, some women have a family history of cervical cancer or trouble having children. With the help of pap smears, women can get a sense of certainty that they are cancer free or work on ways to have or plan for children.
Vaginal changes are easily detected by pap smears. This includes detecting cancer but also sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, HPV, and more. Some of these diseases do not have cures; however, doctors can then prescribe medicine to make living with one’s situation more bearable.
In other words, pap smears give answers.
Thankfully, we don’t have to get them done our entire lives. From the age of 21 to 30 they only need to be done every 3 years. After pregnancy, a post-partum smear should be done 6-8 weeks after delivery. Then from the age 30 to 65, every 5 years. After hitting the age of 65, pap smears are no longer necessary unless medically advised.
Before your actual procedure there are a few ways to prepare. You want your samples to be easily readable, so first thing is to make sure to not schedule your exam during your menstrual cycle.
Other things to avoid before your exam is intercourse, douching, or using anything inside of the vagina. This includes vaginal medicines, spermicides, creams, or jellies. Try to avoid doing these examples at least two days before your pap smear. Otherwise, many of these avoidances could wash away or obscure abnormal cells.
Now for the intricate details: the exam.
The first thing the doctor will have you do is get undressed from the waist down. They will provide you with a disposable medical sheet and some privacy.
The doctor will then come in and direct you to lie back and place your feet in the stirrups. This may feel like an awkward position, but it does help the doctor easily access your cervix while keeping you as comfortable as possible.
Next comes the actual procedure. Again, the doctor should let you know what they are doing before it happens. The doctor will take a speculum to open your vaginal canal to get samples from inside.
The speculum may create a sense of pressure in your pelvic area. Think of the swab as a long Q-Tip and the flat scraping device as a spatula. Both usually do not hurt and have the most effective way of collecting samples.
Once your exam is done, you are free to go about your day without any restrictions. In some cases, women do experience light bleeding or spotting, but this usually is not a cause for concern. The exam can simply irritate the blood vessels in the cervix. However, most of the uncomfortableness you may feel after is usually only after your first exam.
Waiting for test results which can be stressful, but it is important to remember that a regular pap smear exam protects you in the long run.
If the results come back abnormal, it does not necessarily mean that you have cancer or even a disease at all. It could simply mean your cells are not fully normal.
A healthy cervix contains squamous cells that are thin and flat, and sometimes the slight change in shape and size can mean nothing but to stay monitored. Reanalyzing the cells or getting another exam done may be needed. In some cases, a colposcopy is done to examine the tissues of the cervix, vagina, and vulva. Tissue samples give a definitive diagnosis.
If you got your exam done, results back, and your cervix is healthy, the only thing to do is wait to do it all over again in a few years.
Written by: Kaitlyne Piper