Do I Really Need A Pap Smear?

National guidelines recommend that women begin having a Pap smear every three years at the age of 21, and screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) every year if they are sexually active and age 25 or younger.

Fortunately, in a woman with no gynecologic symptoms (i.e. vaginal discharge, pain, or itch), STI testing can be done without a pelvic exam.  This means that though an annual women’s health visit is recommended every year once you are sexually active, you may not need to have a pelvic exam every time.

What Is A ‘Pap’?

A Pap smear is a screening test for cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer. It is believed that almost all cervical cancer or cervical changes are related to exposure to HPV (Human Papilloma Virus).  Eighty percent of adults are exposed to this virus by the age of 50; most exposure is between the ages of 14-24 years. A sample of the cells of the cervix is obtained during a pelvic examination using a small, flat, cervical “spatula” and special brush.  It is sent to a lab where it is examined under a microscope for abnormalities.  Generally, the test is not painful.  Sometimes women say it feels like a little cramp.  Though the pelvic exam in general may feel “awkward,” it is not usually painful.  So, don’t let what you hear from other women keep you away.  This test is especially important if you have ever had intercourse. To Make An Appointment, Call (213) 740-9355.

What Do The Results Show?

The results usually return within 2 weeks and tell your clinician if the cells are entirely normal, or if there is something of concern. Usually, abnormal results do not mean cancer.  The lab report may say that there are atypical cells (a minor abnormality) or other minor changes.  Sometimes the test shows the presence of HPV. In young women, it is uncommon to see severe abnormalities on the Pap smear.

What If The Results Are Not Normal?

In the case of an abnormal result, your clinician will contact you and explain the result. Most of the time you will simply be asked to repeat the Pap smear in 6-12 months.  Sometimes your clinician will recommend a special exam called colposcopy.  Colposcopy is a closer look at the cervix using a special microscope called a colposcope, done here at the Student Health Center.  It is like a normal pelvic exam, but the doctor uses the colposcope to look into the vagina to see if there are abnormal-appearing areas on your cervix.

Sometimes the doctor might do a biopsy (remove a very small sample of tissue).  Colposcopy is slightly more uncomfortable than a Pap test, but overall, the exam is pretty quick. Once the results of the colposcopy are back, your clinician will contact you and explain if there are more tests required; or he or she may just tell you to return in 6-12 months for a repeat Pap smear.

What Can I Do To Prevent Cervical Cancer Or HPV?

Quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil) provides excellent protection against 4 types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and also external genital warts. This vaccine is generally offered to young girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 12, but can be given anytime if you are age 26 or below.  Even if a woman has already had an abnormal Pap smear or genital warts, the vaccine is still recommended, as it can still provide extra protection.  It is a series of 3 shots given over the time frame of 6 months. The vaccine is offered here at the Student Health Center, and is covered at no cost to you, if you are enrolled in the USC sponsored student health insurance plan.