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Debunking Myths About the Pap Smear

The Pap smear is one of the most common routine medical tests that women get, yet persistent myths and misinformation still abound.  Have you heard the following?

  • You only need a Pap smear if you're sexually active. Not true. Even though most cases of cervical cancer are associated with HPV (human papilloma virus), which is a sexually transmitted infection, there are reports of women who have never had sexual intercourse who have had cervical cancer. We don't have an explanation for this . . . yet.
  • You don't need a Pap smear if you've passed menopause. Not true. In fact, one in four cervical cancers develops in women over 65. Since Medicare began covering Pap smears in 1990, the incidence of invasive and noninvasive cervical cancer in medically insured women has decreased significantly.
  • You don't need a Pap smear if you've had a hysterectomy. Not true. Pap smears are also useful in picking up abnormal changes in the cells of the vaginal wall.  If your hysterectomy was for a non-cancerous reason, most doctors recommend a Pap smear every three years.
  • You should douche before having a Pap smear. The opposite is true! Douching may remove some of the cells your doctor is trying to collect on the smear. In fact, there are very few medical reasons for douching at all.
  • If you get a call to come in for a repeat Pap test, it's got to be bad news. Not true. Many times, the sample obtained from the traditional Pap smear is simply "inadequate," meaning not enough cells were obtained. This is annoying and inconvenient for doctors and patients, but the "better safe than sorry" advice applies here. One of the newer technologies, the ThinPrep® Pap test system aims to reduce the number of repeat tests needed by capturing and preserving the entire cervical sample in a container of preservative. This way, another smear can be prepared from the same sample if necessary, rather than having the patient return.
  • Pap smear results are not that reliable; cervical cancers are commonly overlooked. Not true. In fact, if a woman gets her Pap smear annually, the chance of an abnormality being missed over five years is extremely small.

Created: 8/29/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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