What is a Papanicolaou Smear?

Sara Schmidt

Women depend on many different screenings to maintain their overall health and wellness. One such gynecological screening that most women engage in is the Papanicolaou smear, or or Pap smear, test. The primary function of this test is to collect and process the cells of the ectocervix, or neck of the cervix, and determine if they are healthy or not.

A pap smear is a diagnostic tool used to detect early signs of cervical cancer.
A pap smear is a diagnostic tool used to detect early signs of cervical cancer.

Also known as a Pap test, smear test, or cervical smear, a Papanicolaou smear test is one of the best ways to prevent or diagnose cervical cancer. The exam is used to detect the presence of both premalignant and malignant cells within the ectocervix. The test is named after the Greek physician who invented it, Georgios Papanikolaou.

Pap smear a speculum is inserted into the vagina to make the cervix visible to the doctor.
Pap smear a speculum is inserted into the vagina to make the cervix visible to the doctor.

Prior to receiving a Papanicolaou smear, a patient is normally advised to schedule the procedure during a time she will not be menstruating. Heavy bleeding can alter the results of the test, obscuring the cells that need to be assessed. A Pap smear can, however, be conducted during light bleeding.

Laboratory technicians can run tests on Pap smears.
Laboratory technicians can run tests on Pap smears.

During the exam, the patient is usually expected to disrobe and put on a hospital gown. She will lay on the examining table, placing her feet in the stirrups attached to the table. The physician will then insert a speculum, or plastic tool, into the vagina in order to access the cervix. He or she will then collect cervical cell samples through the outer opening of the cervix with tools such as an Aylesbury spatula and an endocervical brush or a plastic-fronded broom.

Papanicolaou smears are done using a special wand to scrape cells from the cervix.
Papanicolaou smears are done using a special wand to scrape cells from the cervix.

After the samples are collected, the physician will place them onto a glass slide for processing. The samples will then be sent to the physician's laboratory for examination. Samples may first be pre-screened by a computer to detect abnormalities. If the cells require further study, they are sent to a lab technician for further investigation.

Laboratory technicians will stain the cells with a dye. This will allow him or her to see the cells clearly through a microscope. If Papanicolaou smear results are normal, no further action is required. Abnormal results, which could indicate infection, cancer, or other possible problems, are reported to the patient's physician. Results considered abnormal are not necessarily of a malevolent nature.

Few side effects are involved following a Papanicolaou smear. During the exam, patients may feel slight pain, severe pain, or no pain at all. Some patients experience mild abdominal cramping similar to the discomfort they may experience during menstruation. Spotting, or very light bleeding, can also occur.

Pap test cells are stained with a dye, which will allow the cells to be seen clearly through a microscope.
Pap test cells are stained with a dye, which will allow the cells to be seen clearly through a microscope.

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