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A pap smear, also known as a pap test, is a screening test that checks for cervical cancer. It is the best method of finding cervical cancer in its earliest stages before you're even aware that something is wrong. The earlier cervical cancer is detected, the better your chances for successful treatment.
If the results of a pap test show abnormal changes in your cells, you may or may not need additional care. In many cases, the first step is to repeat the test. If the results of the second test are normal, you likely will not need any follow-up care.
It is rare that an abnormal pap test means you have cancer. Abnormal cell changes are usually caused by vaginal infections, which can be treated, or by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted infection. In many cases of HPV infection, abnormal changes go away without treatment. However, some types of HPV increase the risk of cervical cancer and may require further evaluation.
Pap tests usually are performed during your annual well-woman exam. Your doctor or health care professional gently scrapes cells from your cervix and examines them under a microscope. The test is generally painless and takes only a few minutes.
If more testing is needed, your doctor may recommend a colposcopy. Your doctor will use a lighted magnifying glass to more closely examine your cervix and surrounding tissues. If necessary, your doctor may remove a small tissue sample from the cervix to be examined under a microscope. Should the results show only mild cell changes, your doctor may recommend repeating the test in several months. If the changes are more significant, you may need treatment to remove or destroy the abnormal cells.
Depending on your age and medical history, your Mercy doctor may recommend a pap smear every year or every few years. These simple tests are an important part of your preventive care and can help you stay healthy and well.
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