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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

The Pap test (Papanicolaou smear) is an examination that is used to detect cervical cancer and precancerous conditions of the cervix. If a Pap test detects a precancerous condition (a change on the surface of the cervix that can lead to cancer), your doctor can treat or remove the abnormal tissue to prevent cervical cancer. If a Pap test detects a cervical cancer in its early stages, it may be possible to treat and cure your cancer before it has a chance to spread.

In almost all cases, precancerous changes or cancer on the surface of the cervix are caused by a virus infection called human papilloma virus (HPV). Some types of HPV cause genital warts, and some types of HPV can cause cancer. Most people who are infected with HPV do not have symptoms, but they can spread the virus to others. HPV is spread through sexual contact with an infected person.

Women can be tested for HPV. The doctor uses a cotton swab or small brush to collect cells from the surface of the cervix. The sample is sent to the laboratory to be tested for the presence of HPV DNA.

The HPV DNA test has shown researchers how common this virus really is. Between 20% and 40% of sexually active teenagers test positive for recent HPV exposure, and about 40% of sexually active women between the ages of 20 and 29 have a positive test result. The good news is that most women clear the virus without treatment.

Because the virus is so common, but rarely leads to cancer, the HPV test by itself is not a good screening test for cervical cancer.

The Pap test remains the best way to screen women for cervical cancer. The Pap test is done during a pelvic examination. Cells are gently scraped from the cervix and are sent to a laboratory for evaluation. The Pap test itself takes only a few moments. It is usually part of a complete gynecological examination that may last between 5 and 20 minutes.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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