A Pap Smear (or Pap test) is a quick, painless procedure that screens for cervical cancer. It involves examining cells taken from the cervix under a microscope. The test doesn’t diagnose cancer, but rather looks for abnormal cervical changes (cervical dysplasia) – precancerous or cancerous cells that could indicate cancer. If any are found, further testing, such as a colposcopy or biopsy, will be done in order to diagnose cancer.

Because the Pap is a screening test, there are specific guidelines regarding who should have one, at what age, and how often based on age and risk factors. Although these recommendations refer to all women, there are some risk factors for cervical cancer that may make it prudent to have more frequent Pap smears. These include:

– Having a family history of cervical cancer

– A diagnosis of cervical cancer or a Pap smear that showed precancerous cells3

– Infection by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

– Weakened immune system due to many factors, such as organ transplant, chemotherapy, or corticosteroids

– An infection, such as genital herpes or chlamydia

– Previous cancer of the genital tract

– Smoking

Even after a hysterectomy, you could still require Pap tests. You should continue to have Pap tests for 20 years after your surgery if you have a history of moderate to severe cervical changes or cervical cancer. This depends on the reason you had the hysterectomy, whether your cervix was removed (because cervical cells can remain at the top of the vagina after surgery), and whether you had your cervix removed.

The Pap smear is the best way to screen for abnormal cervical cells that may be cancerous or precancerous and to detect the certain strains of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer. It’s painless and has no serious risks. Fortunately, the procedure takes just a few minutes and only needs to be repeated every three years for most women. Both of these factors should help make the prospect of having this vital test less nerve-wracking.

There really are no physical risks associated with having a Pap smear. The test is very safe, even if you’re pregnant.