For most women, turning 21 has an odd caveat to go with the milestone: their first pap smear. A pap smear (also known as a pap test) is a vaginal exam that screens for cervical cancer. This is done by taking a swab to collect cervical cells to be examined for abnormal growth and other indications of precancerous/cancerous cells. It’s a simple procedure that takes a few minutes at most, but many women have concerns and fears when they step into their doctor’s office for their first one. No need to worry though! This is what you need to know to have a successful and stress-free first pap smear.
What to know before your test
Before your first test, there are certain things you need to do to prepare, as well as a few steps you can take to ensure your experience is a comfortable one.
When scheduling your pap smear, try not to schedule your appointment during your period. If it’s unavoidable, that’s okay—however, a period-free day is best, as it makes the exam easier for both you and your doctor. Another thing to keep in mind with timing and your pap smear: avoid vaginal intercourse, douching and any vaginally applied medicine for at least two days prior to the exam. According to the Mayo Clinic, doing any of these things within two days of your test may obscure or even wash away potential abnormal cells your doctor will be swabbing for.
To ensure your comfort, it’s suggested that you wear easily removable clothing to your appointment (like leggings and a simple t-shirt). Depending on your doctor, you may be asked to just undress from the waist down or they may have you remove all of your clothes, especially if they decide to couple the pap smear with a breast exam. Also, don’t worry about changing any of your grooming habits down there—your doctor has seen it all, and any grooming preference is yours.
What to Expect During Your Exam
Once at the doctor’s office, it’s natural to feel nervous—but really, there is no need to be. Your doctor should be explaining what the test entails, as well as the steps they’ll be taking before they administer the test so you know what to expect. Every doctor and their explanation differs, but essentially, the process will be this:
- After undressing, your doctor will instruct you to lay on your back and put your feet up in the examination table’s stirrups.
- Your doctor will then prepare and insert the speculum, which is an instrument that holds your vaginal walls apart so the cervix is seeable and reachable for your doctor. If you’re afraid that it will hurt, don’t be—doctors commonly use lube to ensure that the speculum will slide into place easily and as gently as possible, and when not opened, the speculum is a bit bigger than a tampon, but smaller than the average penis, so if you are sexually active or use tampons, it won’t be too odd of a sensation. Once inserted, there will be a slight pressure in that area, but just keep relaxing and it will be fine.
- Then, using an instrument called a spatula (a small, flat scraping device) or a brush with soft bristles, your doctor will take samples of your cervical cells from the cervix’s walls. It doesn’t hurt, but again, the sensation will be a little odd.
- After the samples are collected and transferred and the speculum is removed, you are all done! Your doctor will give you a chance to clean up and get dressed again before your appointment resumes. Be sure to check with your doctor about when to expect the results of your pap smear.
After the Pap Smear
Congratulations, you survived your first pap smear! Unfortunately, it’s not a “one-and-done” kind of test—most doctors insist that you repeat pap testing every three years. In special cases (such as having a weakened immune system, being HIV-positive, or a diagnosis of cervical cancer), your doctor may recommend more frequent pap testing.
Directly after your first pap smear, however, you can go about your day as normal, with no restrictions. (If you are in pain after your pap test, contact your doctor with your concerns, as that is not a normal occurrence afterward.) Your doctor will contact you about the results of your test, and can discuss the results with you. In the meantime, relax—you just accomplished another health milestone!