Learning About Pap Tests

Skip to the navigation

What is a Pap test?

The Pap test (also called a Pap smear) is a screening test for cancer of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The test can help your doctor find early changes in the cells that could lead to cancer.

During the test, the doctor or nurse will insert a tool called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum gently spreads apart the vaginal walls. That allows your doctor to see inside the vagina and the cervix. He or she uses a cotton swab or brush to collect cell samples from your cervix.

Try to schedule the test when you're not having your period. To get ready for a Pap test, avoid douches, tampons, vaginal medicines, sprays, or powders for at least a day before you have the test.

When should you have a Pap test?

Guidelines for when to start having Pap tests and how often have them vary from province to province. Talk with your doctor about how often you need to have a Pap test.

Below are examples of screening recommendations from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care and the Public Health Agency of Canada. These recommendations are different from each other. These screening recommendations may not be used in your area.

The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Healthcare recommends:

  • If you are younger than 25, routine screenings are not recommended.
  • If you are 25 to 69, screening is recommended every 3 years.
  • If you are 70 or older and have had 3 negative Pap tests results in a row in the last 10 years, screening is no longer needed. If you haven't had regular screenings, continue getting tested until you have 3 negative test results.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends:

  • If you are sexually active, have a Pap test every 1 to 3 years, depending on the guidelines in your province.
  • If you have had a hysterectomy, talk to your doctor about whether you need a Pap test.
  • If you stop having sex, continue to have regular Pap testing.

These recommendations do not apply to women who have had a serious abnormal Pap test result or who have certain health problems. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be tested.

Having the HPV vaccine does not change your need for Pap tests. Women who have had the HPV vaccine should follow the same Pap test schedule as women who have not had the vaccine.

Cervical cancer screening programs in your area

  • Alberta: Go to the Screening for Life Cervical Cancer webpage at www.screeningforlife.ca/cervical.
  • British Columbia: Go to the BC Cancer Agency's webpage at www.screeningbc.ca/Cervix/default.htm.
  • Ontario: Go to Cancer Care Ontario's Cervical Cancer Screening webpage at www.cancercare.on.ca/pcs/screening/cervscreening.
  • Saskatchewan: Go to the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency's webpage at www.saskcancer.ca and select Screening.

If your area is not listed, go to www.cancerview.ca and select "Prevention and Screening." Some areas don't have cervical cancer screening program webpages, or programs may be in development. Talk with your doctor about when and how often to have Pap tests for cervical cancer screening.

What happens after the test?

The sample of cells taken during your test will be sent to a lab so that an expert can look at the cells. It usually takes a week or two to get the results back.

  • A normal result means that the test did not find any abnormal cells in the sample.
  • An abnormal result can mean many things. Most of these are not cancer. The results of your test may be abnormal because:
    • You have an infection of the vagina or cervix, such as a yeast infection.
    • You have an IUD (intrauterine device for birth control).
    • You have low estrogen levels after menopause that are causing the cells to change.
    • You have cell changes that may be a sign of precancer or cancer. The results are ranked based on how serious the changes might be.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter P919 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About Pap Tests."