Two words cause trepidation among women everywhere: Pap smear. This procedure can be so intimidating that women put it off for years, risking their health because they dread those stirrups. Not only is it dangerous to skip Pap tests, but the apprehension is unnecessary. Annual Pap smears are not fun, but they are certainly not something to fear. Here is what you need to know about your annual exam:
Regular health checkup. First, a nurse will take your weight and blood pressure. Sometimes a urine sample is also taken to check for bacterial infections or test for pregnancy. If you aren’t asked for a urine sample, it’s a good idea to empty your bladder before the physical exam anyway (this will make you more comfortable).
Prepare for the exam. After your nurse takes your vitals, she will provide you with a gown and a paper blanket and ask you to undress from the waist down and, in most cases, also ask that you remove your bra so that your doctor can examine your breasts for lumps. The nurse will then leave the room to allow you to undress.
The question portion. Your doctor will come in shortly after (if your doctor is male, then the nurse will come in also) and spend some time talking with you about your current health concerns and gather information about your menstrual cycle, your sexual history, and your method of birth control. Your doctor might discuss some other options for birth control if you aren’t happy with your current method or if you aren’t regularly using protection (a big no-no)!
You’ll also be asked if you have experienced any unusual discharge or vaginal odor, if you have any issues such as frequent yeast infections or UTIs, or if you ever experience pain during intercourse. Don’t be afraid to be honest and completely direct, even if it is about something that is kind of embarrassing (such as a foul vaginal odor or an itchy rectum…whatever!). Trust me, ob-gyns have heard it all and will be more than happy to offer their expertise and treatment solutions.
The Pap smear. Your doctor will then move on to the physical examination, checking your breasts for lumps and feeling your abdomen for irregularities. Next, you’ll place your feet in the stirrups and slide down to the end of the table. Try to relax your knees and not tense up, as this will make the examination more difficult. Your doctor will then insert a speculum into your vagina to examine the cervix and use a swab to collect sample cells to send out for testing. (Before using the speculum, though, your doctor might use a little lubricant to help make the insertion more comfortable.) In addition to the Pap test, you may have sample cells sent out to test for STDs as well. You might feel a slight pinching for a moment or two, but the pain should be minimal and dissipate quickly. Many gynecologists will then do a quick rectal exam to feel for polyps and abnormalities by inserting a finger into your rectum.
Frequency. Currently, it is recommended that women undergo regular Pap smears. You should go as soon as you become sexually active, or as soon as you turn 21 (whichever is earlier). You’ll need to get a Pap test every two years — but you can wait until three years if your past few tests have been normal, and if that is what your doctor advises. Even if there are periods when you are not sexually active, don’t skip your regular Pap tests: You might not be having sex now, but you still need to take care of your sexual and reproductive health.