From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
A simple but important procedure designed to detect abnormal cells in the cervix—a condition physicians call dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN)—which can indictate the presence of or potential for cervical cancer.
The Pap test, or smear, is usually performed once a year—but it may be performed more or less often, depending on a doctor’s advice. The Pap test is named after Dr. George Papanicolaou, who developed the technique of swabbing or scraping the cervix and surrounding areas to collect samples of cells, which are then “smeared” on a slide and sprayed with a fixing solution to preserve them. The procedure is generally done to supplement a routine pelvic (“internal”) examination in the gynecologist’s office. It is almost always painless and has no side effects. The smear is then sent to a pathologist, a doctor specially trained to analyze cell structure. A woman should not douche for at least twenty-four hours before having the test, as douching reduces the number of cells available for analysis.
If all cells appear normal, the tissue of the cervix is presumed to be healthy and the results are termed “negative.” The appearance of abnormal cells in the sample may signal that further tests are necessary to determine the cause.
In addition to its use in detecting early stages of cervical cancer, the Pap test is used in diagnosing infections and in determining a woman’s estrogen level. This is important in determining whether a woman experiencing menopause needs estrogen replacement therapy.