Regular Pap smears and pelvic examinations are critical to women’s health. These examinations can give you early insight into any abnormalities with your reproductive organs. Early detection is important to increasing the probability of effective treatment. Regular encounters with a provider experienced in sexual and reproductive health issues are a good idea. These should start at the time you begin to consider becoming sexually active and not later than age 21. While current guidelines recommend delaying Pap testing until age 21, other interventions are likely to be of value prior to this time.
The Pap smear is a screening test for cancer of the cervix. To perform the test, your provider will gather samples of cells from the cervix and analyze them in a laboratory. Frequency of the test is determined by age, risk factors, and results of prior tests. Talk to your provider about what interval for Pap tests and other evaluations is appropriate for you.
An abnormal Pap smear result does not mean that you have cervical cancer. Instead, it means that more testing is necessary to determine appropriate care and follow up. If recommended, it is important to return to the office for repeat Pap smears, more advanced testing (such as colposcopy, an examination of the cervix under magnification), or treatment of the cervix. If left untreated, abnormal Pap smears could progress to cancer of the cervix over a period of several years.
Pelvic examinations are manual exams of the pelvic organs. During the examination, your provider will insert two gloved fingers into your vagina and press on your lower abdomen with her other hand to feel for any abnormalities in the shape and size of your ovaries and uterus. These exams are also opportunities to discuss questions or concerns about sexual health, including any pain, bleeding, rashes, bumps or other issues you may have experienced. It is also an opportunity to talk with your provider about screening tests appropriate to you, especially testing for Chlamydia and HIV.