Pap test: Why you need it

Dec 11, 2013

Cervical cancer is preventable, and this January, during Cervical Health Awareness Month, Dr. Jennifer Linden, FACOG, of Campbell County Medical Group OB GYN Specialists wants to encourage you to have a Pap test.

A Pap test can find cell changes in a women's cervix caused by the HPV virus and an HPV test can find the virus and help healthcare providers know which women are at highest risk for cervical cancer. It's important for all women to talk to their healthcare provider about their risk of cervical cancer and discuss their regular screening options and the vaccines that are available for the HPV virus.

Why, you may ask?
As a woman, your best defense against cervical cancer is to have a Pap test on a regular basis. Here's why: The Pap test helps prevent cancer by finding cell changes in the cervix that can be treated before the cells turn malignant. The test can also help doctors find cervical cancer early enough to treat it successfully.

In other words, this test can save your life. Read on to learn more—and about a follow-up test, called colposcopy, that's sometimes needed.

How it works
The Pap test is often done along with a pelvic exam. During the test, a special brush or other instrument is used to collect some cells from in and around the cervix so they can be examined in a lab.

The test is used to diagnose abnormal cell changes, which can be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Since treating these cells usually stops cervical cancer from starting, getting the Pap test regularly is the best way to prevent this disease. It usually takes two to seven years for serious changes in cervical cells to become cancerous, but even then there may be no noticeable symptoms.

When and how often do you need a Pap test? Here's what the American Cancer Society recommends:

  • Starting at age 21, women should have a Pap test every three years, even if they have no symptoms.
  • After age 30, the Pap test should be combined with the test that looks for the HPV virus. Wmen should have the two tests every five years. Or women can continue screening with just the Pap test every three years.
  • A woman over 65 may not need a Pap test at all if she is screened regularly or has no history of cervical changes, ask your doctor if you still need Pap tests.

Based on your health history, you might need more frequent screenings.

If The Results Are Abnormal
Abnormal Pap test results do not usually mean cancer. But to help find out, your doctor might recommend a colposcopy.

During this exam, a lighted instrument placed just outside the vagina is used to magnify the view of the cervix. First, a vinegar-like solution is applied to the cervix to make any abnormal areas easier to see.

If the doctor sees abnormal cells, a biopsy may be done at the same time. He or she will remove a small sample of cervical tissue so that it can be examined in a lab to determine whether it might be cancer or pre-cancer.

Colposcopy is usually painless, though you may feel some discomfort if it includes a biopsy. Afterward, your doctor will discuss your results and any additional treatment you may need.

In short: The Pap test helps prevent cancer by finding cell changes that can be treated before the cells turn malignant.

Have questions?
Jennifer Linden, MD, FACOG, practices at Campbell County Medical Group OB GYN Specialists in the Main Clinic on the south side of Campbell County Memorial Hospital. Dr. Linden encourages you to speak with your doctor if you have questions regarding pap tests or your results. Call 307.688.3636 for an appointment. Learn more at

Additional sources: American Academy of Family Physicians; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists