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What is a Pap test?

A Pap test (also called a Pap smear) looks for unhealthy “abnormal” cells or “pre-cancerous” cells on the cervix. To do a Pap test, a health care provider collects some cells off the cervix with a small brush. Then they send these cells to a laboratory, where they are looked at under a microscope. The Pap test can find abnormal or unhealthy cells that might be growing on the cervix. These cells could be unhealthy because they are infected with a virus called “HPV”.  Providers can do the Pap test during a pelvic exam.

What is a pelvic exam?

During a pelvic exam, a health care provider checks the reproductive and nearby organs – the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, and rectum. Doctors recommend that women get regular pelvic exams. To do one, a health care provider places a tool (called a speculum) inside the vagina to hold it open. This lets them see the top part of the vagina and the cervix.

When should a woman get a Pap test?

How often you should get a Pap test depends on your age and health history. Here are some general recommendations for when a woman should get a Pap test:

  • Women ages 21-29 should get a Pap test every three years.
  • Women ages 30-65 should get a Pap test every five years along with an HPV test (co-testing). Women ages 30-65 can instead get just a Pap test every three years.
  • Women ages 66 and older can stop having cervical cancer screening. They should do this if they had normal Pap test results in the past 5 years and are not at high risk for cervical cancer.

If you have ever had an abnormal Pap test result or if you have other risk factors, you might need to get tested more often. You should talk to your health care provider about the Pap test and how often you need to get one. More information on when to have a Pap test is available here.

Where can I go to get a Pap test?

Many providers offer Pap tests, but the cost and eligibility requirements may be different at each place. You should talk to your health care provider about Pap tests and HPV. Visit the Screening – Where To Go page to find places near you that offer free or low-cost Pap tests.

What if my Pap test is “abnormal”?

An “abnormal” Pap test means some cells from your cervix did not look healthy or that the test did not get a good sample of cells. An abnormal Pap test result does not mean a woman has cancer or that she should be worried. Your provider might need to do another test to learn whether there are unhealthy cells growing on the cervix. This test will collect more cells to see whether they look healthy or abnormal. If this test finds abnormal cells again, the next step is for the provider to look at the cervix with a microscope to see if there any areas that might be a problem. This procedure is called a colposcopy.

What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is an exam that lets a health care provider look at the cells of the cervix with a microscope. During a pelvic exam, a health care provider uses a “colposcope” to see the cervix better. A colposcope is a tool that looks like a pair of binoculars with a bright light on it. It has magnifying glasses that allow the health care provider to see any places on the cervix that look abnormal or unhealthy. A health care provider will do a colposcopy when a woman has an abnormal Pap test or an HPV infection, or if they see something abnormal on a woman’s cervix during a pelvic exam.

What is a biopsy?

A biopsy will find out if a woman has healthy cells, abnormal cells, or cancer. If the colposcopy shows places on the cervix that look unhealthy or abnormal, the health care provider will do a biopsy. To do the biopsy, they remove a very small amount of tissue from the cervix, and then look at the sample under the microscope to check for cancer cells.

What is a HPV test?

The HPV test looks for the virus that causes abnormal cells to grow on the cervix. The virus is called human papillomavirus, or HPV. The HPV test is done just like a Pap test. A health care provider uses a small brush to get cells from the cervix, and then the laboratory tests to see if these cells have HPV in them. The Pap test, HPV test, and some other tests for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) are done in almost the same way, but are looking for different things.

When should a woman get a test for HPV?

Doctors recommend HPV tests for women who are at least 30 years old and have had an abnormal Pap test result that is not clear (called an “ASCUS”). HPV testing is not for everyone. Women aged 30 or older can be tested for of HPV during their regular pelvic exam.  It is not recommended for women under 30 years of age.

Where can I get tested for HPV?

Many places offer HPV tests, but the costs may be different at each place. All women should talk to their health care provider about HPV. Visit the Screening – Where To Go page to find places near you that offer free or low-cost Pap tests.  Some of these places may also offer the HPV test with the Pap test.

What if I have a positive HPV test?

A positive HPV test means that a woman has HPV on her cervix. This does not mean that she has cervical cancer, or that she will get cervical cancer. HPV infections are very common – about 80% of women will get an HPV infection during their lives. If the HPV test finds the virus, the result is considered “positive.” A positive HPV test means that a woman has a higher chance of growing abnormal cells, which might lead to cervical cancer over time. However, most HPV infections will go away on their own. It is important for all women with an HPV infection to get checked regularly with a Pap test.

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Cervical cancer can be prevented through screening and HPV vaccination. This site aims to help connect women and girls who are uninsured or underinsured to free or low-cost screening and vaccination services available in North Carolina.
El cáncer cervical puede prevenirse con la vacuna contra el Virus del Papiloma Humano (VPH) y a través de la detección temprana con la prueba de Papanicolaou. Esta página de internet tiene el fin de ayudar a conectar a mujeres y niñas que no tienen seguro médico (o con un seguro que es insuficiente), con servicios de vacunación y pruebas de Papanicolaou gratuitos o de bajo costo disponibles en Carolina del Norte.
Free and low-cost cervical cancer screening (the Pap test) is available in North Carolina for women who qualify.
En Carolina del Norte hay pruebas de detección temprana del cáncer cervical (prueba de Papanicolaou) gratuitas, o de bajo costo, para las mujeres que cumplan con ciertos requisitos.
HPV vaccine is available for little or no cost in North Carolina for adolescents who qualify.
En Carolina del Norte la vacuna del VPH está disponible a bajo o ningún costo para los niños y las niñas que cumplan con ciertos requisitos.