A diagnostic test of a sample of cells from the surface of a woman's cervix to check for abnormalities that can develop into cancer 


Vagina, cervix (the lower, narrow end of a woman's uterus)


To check cervical cells for:

  • Inflammation of the cervix
  • Infection of the cervix
  • Changes or abnormalities (cervical dysplasia) that could develop into cancer

Cervical cancer develops relatively slowly, so abnormalities detected early can be treated before cancer develops.




Prior to Procedure:

  • Do not schedule the Pap test during your menstrual period, if possible, schedule it two weeks after the first day of your period
  • Do not use vaginal creams, medications, or douches for 72 hours before the test
  • Do not use contraceptives such as spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies for 72 hours before the test
  • Do not have intercourse for 24 hours before the test

Tell your doctor if any of the following is true:

  • You are having your period
  • You are pregnant
  • You had a previous Pap test showing abnormalities
  • You are sexually active
  • You have been exposed to HPV or other sexually transmitted diseases
  • You have had abnormal vaginal discharges or vaginal infections
  • You have had surgery, radiation treatment, or chemotherapy
  • You are taking birth control pills, hormone pills, or using hormone cream

During Procedure - A Pap test is typically done as part of a pelvic exam

Anesthesia – None

Description of the Procedure - You lie on your back on an examination table, with legs spread and feet placed in foot rests. A medical instrument, called a speculum, is gently inserted into the vagina, and opened so that the doctor can view the cervix. At this point, a pelvic exam is done. For this exam, the doctor checks the uterus, vagina, fallopian tubes, rectum, and bladder.

For the Pap test, a wooden swab, brush, or stick is inserted into the vagina and used to wipe the walls of the cervix to retrieve cervical cells. These cells are placed on a glass microscope slide and sent to a laboratory for testing and evaluation.

After Procedure - The cervical cells are placed on a glass microscope slide, and sent to a lab for examination

How Long Will It Take? The pelvic exam takes 15-20 minutes, the Pap test portion takes less than 5 minutes.

Will It Hurt? A Pap test is generally painless, although you may feel some pressure or a small cramp when the cervix is wiped to acquire cells for examination.

Possible Complications – None

Average Hospital Stay – None. A Pap test is done at your doctor's office as part of a pelvic exam.


Results of your Pap test are sent to your doctor within 2-3 weeks. Your doctor will then inform you of the results, and, if necessary, discuss any follow-up testing or treatment:

  • If cells are normal, no treatment is necessary. Have another Pap test with your next yearly pelvic exam.
  • If an infection is found, treatment will be prescribed.
  • If abnormalities are found, further tests will be performed. Once the cause of the abnormality is determined, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you. Further tests include:
  • Colposcopy - examination of the vagina and cervix with an endoscope, a fiber-optic tube attached to a viewing device
  • Biopsy - removal of a small amount of cervical tissue for further testing


  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods or after menopause
  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Foul vaginal odor, pain, or unusual vaginal discharge
  • Severe abdominal pain or swelling

College of American Pathologists

University of Iowa Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

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