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Understanding Cervical Changes: A Health Guide for Women

  • Posted: 04/30/2014

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Pap Test and HPV Test

The Pap test and the HPV test are cervical cancer screening tests. Screening means checking for disease before there are symptoms. Women need cervical cancer screening even if they feel fine. Screening can help find changes in cervical cells, so you can receive the proper follow-up and treatment you may need, to stay healthy.

"Screening tests can help find cell changes in the cervix early. Sometimes these changes can develop into cancer if they aren't treated."

The Pap test (also called a Pap smear) finds cervical cell changes that may turn into cervical cancer. It can also detect cervical cancer cells. A Pap test also sometimes finds conditions, such as infection or inflammation that are not cancer.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) test can find infection with the types of HPV that can cause cancer.

Cotesting means that both the Pap test and the HPV test are done at the same time.

What to Expect

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The reproductive system
The cervix is part of the female reproductive system. It's the lower, narrow end of the uterus, which leads to the vagina, as shown in the image above. The cervix opens during childbirth to allow the baby to pass.

Cervical cancer screening tests are usually done during a pelvic exam. During this exam, you lie on your back on an exam table, bend your knees, and put your feet into stirrups. The health care provider gently opens your vagina with a speculum to see the cervix. A soft, narrow brush or spatula is used to collect a small sample of cells from your cervix.

The sample of cervical cells is sent to the lab and checked for any abnormal cervical cells. The same sample can also be checked for HPV, with an HPV test. When both a Pap test and an HPV test are done, this is called cotesting.

A pelvic exam includes more than just taking samples for a Pap and/or HPV test. Your health care provider will also check the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries and feel for any lumps or cysts. The rectum may also be checked for lumps or abnormal areas. Most health care providers will tell you what to expect at each step of the exam, so you will be at ease. When you talk with your health care provider, you may also ask to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Clinics That Offer Screening

Doctors' offices, clinics, and community health centers offer Pap and HPV tests. Many women receive these tests from their ob/gyn (obstetrics/gynecology) doctors. If you don't have a doctor you see regularly you can find a clinic near you that offers cervical cancer screening by contacting:

Questions to Ask Before and After Your Exam

Before Your Exam:

Ask your health care provider:

  • What will happen during the exam?
  • What tests will I have and why?
  • Will I have any discomfort?

Your health care provider may ask you:

  • What was the start date of your last period?
  • When did you have your last Pap and/or HPV test? What were your test results?

After Your Exam:

Ask your health care provider:

  • When will I get my test results? How will I get these results (e.g., by mail or a phone call)?
  • What phone number should I call if I do not get my test results?
  • When I get my results, will they explain what I should do next?