The cervix is the lower, narrow end of a woman's uterus. It opens into the vagina (the birth canal). The cervix is covered by a thin layer of tissue. This tissue is like the skin inside your mouth.
The Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear or cervical cytology screening, is a simple test to look at cells taken from the cervix.
Pap tests are an important part of all women's health care. When and how often you have the test depends on your age and health history. You should have routine Pap tests if:
All women should have a pelvic exam yearly. When a woman has a pelvic exam with a speculum, a Pap test may or may not be done. Be sure you know if a Pap test has been included in your exam.
Talk with your doctor about whether and how often you should have a Pap test. Women younger than 30 years should have a Pap test every year. If you are older than 30 years and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, you may not need a Pap test every year.
Most labs in the United States use the "Bethesda System" to describe Pap test results. Under this system, your results will be placed in one of several groups:
Cells taken from the surface of the cervix sometimes look abnormal. Usually abnormal cells are not cancer. Abnormal cells may go through many stages of change before cervical cancer appears. This often happens over a number of years.
If the lab finds abnormal cells, your doctor may suggest more tests. This may be as simple as a repeat Pap test.
Your doctor also may want to test for human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a group of related viruses, a few of which are linked to cervical changes.
Sometimes an exam called a colposcopy may be advised. This exam uses a device like a microscope to look at the cervix.
If an area of abnormal cells is seen, your doctor may decide that a cervical biopsy is needed.
As with any lab test, Pap test results are not always accurate. Sometimes, the results show abnormal cells when the cells are normal. This is called a "false-positive" result. A Pap test also may fail to detect abnormal cells when they are present. This is called a "false-negative" result.