A Pap smear (Papanicolaou test) is a method of cervical screening used to detect potentially precancerous and cancerous processes in the cervix or colon. Abnormal findings are often followed up by more sensitive diagnostic procedures and, if warranted, interventions that aim to prevent progression to cervical cancer. This test involves collecting cells from your cervix — the lower, narrow end of your uterus that's at the top of your vagina

When to get one

  • A Pap smear begins at the age of 21, and if you have a normal test, it occurs every 3 years. If your test is abnormal you should get tested every year
  • People with a cervix may consider stopping routine Pap testing at age 65 if their previous tests for cervical cancer have been negative

How to prepare

  • Avoid intercourse, douching or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before having a Pap smear as these may wash away or obscure abnormal cells
  • Try not to schedule a Pap smear during your menstrual period. It's best to avoid this time of your cycle, if possible

What to expect

  • You'll lie down on your back on an exam table with your knees bent and your heels rest in supports called stirrups
  • Your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of your vagina apart so that your doctor can easily see your cervix. Inserting the speculum may cause a sensation of pressure in your pelvic area

Normal results

If only normal cervical cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have a negative result. You won't need any further treatment or testing until you're due for your next Pap smear and pelvic exam.

Abnormal results

  • If abnormal or unusual cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have a positive result. A positive result doesn't mean you have cervical cancer. What a positive result means depends on the type of cells discovered in your test
  • If your Pap smear is abnormal, your doctor may perform a procedure called colposcopy using a special magnifying instrument (colposcope) to examine the tissues of the cervix, vagina and vulva
  • Your doctor also may take a tissue sample (biopsy) from any areas that appear abnormal. The tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis and a definitive diagnosis 

Campus Resources

Nebraska Medicine University Health Center offers medical services to help students feel and stay well, including Pap smears and gynecological exams. Most services at the University Health Center require an appointment. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule an appointment. Learn more about hours.