A pap-smear - named after the famous Dr. George Papanicolauo (say that 10 times) - is a tool used to screen for cervical cancer in women. Simply called “A PAP” it is recommended that all women have regular screenings during certain stages of their lifetime.
However, some women either have no clue a pap smear exist to screen for cervical cancer, while other women avoid getting a pap smear altogether based on negative experiences.
And this is why I became a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner.
The difference between a Pap Smear and a Pelvic Exam
So, let’s start off with the basics. You’ve probably heard both terms used during your lifetime, even heard them being used interchangeably. Well, here’s the breakdown: a pelvic exam consists of the healthcare provider (such as your OB/GYN, WHNP, FNP, PA) assessing your pelvic area with their eyes and feeling for anything that seems unhealthy or suspicious with their hands. A pap smear, on the other hand, consists of the healthcare provider taking samples of your cells from your cervix and sending them to a lab to determine if there may be signs of unhealthy or abnormal cellular production.
Remember: a pap smear is not a diagnoses for cervical cancer. It's a screening tool used by healthcare providers to determine if something suspicious is going on down there that may require special attention.
Prep for Your Pap
When I tell people I am a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner, many women (and some men) tend to almost always ask me the same questions: how do I prepare for my pap smear that’s coming up? Is there anything special I need to do? Are they going to put me to sleep?
With these questions (and many others) in mind, I came up with 5 tips to prep for your pap smear, whether it’s your first time or if you’ve had one in the past but can’t remember what they did.
- To Shave or Not to Shave? That is the question…..
I get this question a lot because many women think shaving or waxing is mandatory before their pap smear. Shaving or waxing is your choice. It is not mandatory. Hair or no hair will not affect the outcome of your pap smear results. I always tell my patients to continue doing what they normally do because their regular routine will assist in giving me more information on what’s normal for them (that way I can easily distinguish the abnormal).
- Nothing in Your Vagina
And when I say nothing in your vagina, I mean nothing in your vagina. That means no tampons, no douching, no nookie, no vaginal creams/gels, no fingers, no sexx toys, etc for about 2-3 days before your pap smear appointment. This prevents alterations or any discrepancies with your sample cells. Trust me when I say you will be upset if you have to return to your healthcare provider to repeat your pap smear because they couldn’t make out your results.
- It’s Your Period…PERIODT.
Another question asked has to do with scheduling your pap smear during your period. Is it okay? Preferably, it's not the best choice because the blood can alter the sample cells and/or make it difficult for your healthcare provider to visually assess your cervix/vaginal walls (especially if your flow is heavy). Scheduling your pap smear before or after your period is complete will provide a better experience for both you and your healthcare provider (too much blood can make the experience look worse than what it really is). And again, raise your hand if you would like to return to the healthcare provider's office to redo your pap smear due to inadequate sampling!
- Empty Your Bladder
Now imagine, laying on the exam table and you’re trying to hold your urine while your provider is applying pressure with their hands or inserting the speculum to manipulate the exact location you’re trying to control. Talk about more discomfort and pain! And yes, I have had women urinate during their pap smear because they could no longer hold it. The best advice ever to make your pap smear procedure run smoothly, is to empty your bladder beforehand. It will reduce pain, discomfort, and also prevent you from urinating on your healthcare provider.
- Speak Loud and Proud
Last but not least (because there are so many other tips out there), the number one thing I tell my patients to do is to speak up before (ask tons of questions), during (tell us what hurt or feels uncomfortable), and after (discuss your overall experience) your pap smear when you don’t like or don’t understand something that’s going on with your body. Verbalizing feedback to your healthcare provider is important. I’ve heard so many horror stories in my career of women having negative experiences during their pap smear which resulted in them never returning for another one. Always remember, we (the healthcare providers) are here for you. It’s also good to let your provider know if this is your first pap smear. That way a healthy discussion can take place prior to beginning the procedure. For those who still don’t feel comfortable talking to their healthcare provider during the pap procedure, that’s okay. You can always bring some airpods and play some tunes to distract you while your provider is performing the procedure. I encourage this to many of my patients who just “want to get it over it.” But truthfully, you are the expert when it comes to your body, so choosing not to disclose if you are feeling pain/discomfort (or even if you need to stop and use the bathroom) does not provide any benefit to you in the long run.
In the end, the best way to prepare for your pap smear is to just show up for one.
Creating that rapport with your healthcare provider is crucial for preventive healthcare. We as healthcare professionals are here to make sure all your health needs are met. So use these tips and book your next pap smear now….we’re waiting to serve YOU!
About the author:
Carla Mills is a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner in Los Angeles County. She is passionate about serving, empowering, and educating women of all ages about their health. Her experiences range from teenage pregnancy, general prenatal care, STIs, vaginal infections, to birth control, family planning, and menstrual irregularities. Book your video visit with her today!
If you are a student at one of our partnering schools, be sure to book your visit with Carla from the Kiira App under “Get Treatment”
Edited by: Reem Abdalla