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What is a Pap test?

A Pap test is a simple procedure that is a safe and highly accurate screening tool for cervical cancer and precancerous abnormalities of the cervix.

After a speculum (the standard device used to examine the cervix) is placed in the vagina, cells are taken from the surface of the cervix with a cotton swab then smeared onto a glass slide or in a liquid solution. Another sample is taken from the T-zone (or the transition zone, the area of transition between cervical cells and uterus cells) with a tiny wooden or plastic spatula, or a tiny brush. The "liquid-based" Pap tests may provide a higher degree of accuracy and reliability.

For women who have had total hysterectomies (in which the cervix is removed), cells are taken from the walls of the vagina.

The slide or vial is delivered to a laboratory where a cytotechnologist (a lab professional who reviews your tissue sample) and, when necessary, a pathologist (a healthcare professional who examines bodily tissue samples) examines the sample for any abnormalities. Each smear contains roughly 50,000 to 300,000 cells.

Though not infallible, when performed regularly, the Pap smear detects a significant majority of cervical cancers.

Patricia Geraghty, NP
Women's Health

A pap test looks for cervical cancer cells but will also find precancerous changes and thus allow the prevention of cancer. The pap test does not test for cancer in any other organ, such as the uterus or ovaries. Other tests such as HPV, chlamydia and gonorrhea screening may done with the same sample taken for the pap test. Ask your clinician if any testing is being added to your pap test.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.