A pap smear is a screening test done for the early detection of cervical cancer. The test is done to examine the cervix for abnormal cells caused by an infection with human papilloma virus.The cervix is the lowermost opening of the uterus. Pap smear is a simple and relatively painless procedure.

Cervical cancer is commonly caused by human papilloma virus (commonly type 16 and 18) which is a sexually transmitted infection. This virus causes transient changes in the cervix which can become malignant over time. It can take 10 to 20 years or more for a persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type to develop into cancer.

Abnormal looking cells, precancerous lesions and early cervical cancers can be easily detected via a pap smear. Routine cervical screening has been shown to greatly reduce both the number of new cervical cancers diagnosed each year and deaths from the disease.

Pap smear is a simple procedure that can be done in the doctor’s office or in a clinic. It is similar to a pelvic examination. You lie on the examination table, spread your legs and place them on supporting stirrups. A speculum is inserted into the vagina to allow for visualisation of the cervix. A wooden or plastic scraper and/or a cervical brush is used to take sample from the cervix for further examination of the sample (cells) for abnormal cells. During the process, it is important you take deep breaths and stay calm as the process can be discomforting.

You might notice some light bleeding after the procedure. If it becomes marked please report to your doctor immediately.

Frequency of pap smear.

Women aged less than 21 and are not sexually active don’t need to go for a pap smear. However, those that are less than 21 and are sexually active should have a pap smear done every three years. Women who are 21- 29 years should have a pap smear done every 3 years, while those aged 30-65 years should have the test done every 3-5 years in combination with the human papilloma virus test (HPV test-this test is done to check for the presence of the virus). For those who are older than 65 years and have had 3 consecutively negative test, they don’t need to go for a pap smear again.

Virgins can have a pap smear done with a very small sized speculum if they want to. This is because not all cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted HPV virus.

It is important you avoid the following before the test; sexual intercourse, douching and the use of spermicidal products as this can affect your eventual result. It’s also important you are not menstruating during the test as it can affect the eventual result.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. It caused 270000 deaths with about 90% of deaths in low and middle income countries. Regular screening, early diagnosis of cervical cancer and vaccination against HPV virus is key in the reduction/eradication of cervical cancer.

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