September is Sexual Wellness Month. And in honor of the special occasion, women are celebrating their bodies by taking charge of their sexual and reproductive health.

What is a Pap Smear?

A pap smear is a medical procedure that helps detect cervical cancer.

During the procedure, a small brush is used to collect cells from a woman’s cervix. Doctors then examine the cells under a microscope to determine whether they’re cancerous or even precancerous.

Why Are They Important?

Scheduling regular pap smears is important because they can warn women about their risk for cervical cancer. According to a report from the American Cancer Society, more than 4,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2022. But fortunately, using sample cells collected during an exam, doctors can make note of any changes in the cervix before cancer has a chance to develop. 

Not to mention, the sooner doctors find cervical cancer, the sooner they can treat it.

Who Should Schedule One?

To reduce the risk of cervical cancer, doctors recommend patients schedule their first Pap smear around the age of 21. Women under the age of 65 should repeat Pap testing every three years.

If you have medical conditions such as an HIV infection or a weakened immune system, your doctor may recommend you visit more frequently. If you’re unsure, speak with your doctor to plan when and how often you should schedule your Pap appointments.

How To Survive Your First Pap Smear

Pap smears often get a bad rep, but really, they’re a quick and simple procedure. And for the majority of women, they’re also a relatively painless process. The doctors and nurses are there to help you. Not to mention, as trained medical professionals, they’ve likely seen it all. Here are five things to know to prepare for your first Pap smear:

Editorial Note: Information provided in this piece is general advice meant to be informational in its nature, and is not meant to be a substitute for qualified medical expertise. Contact a licensed physician in your state to find option(s) that are best suited for your unique experience.


Try To Plan Ahead

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A good way to combat feelings of anxiety related to your appointment is to plan ahead. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prepare in order to put your mind at ease.

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For example, shaving or grooming your private area can help some women feel less self-conscious during their visit. And even though medical professionals aren’t phased by menstrual bleeding, it’s best to plan your appointment at a time when Aunt Flo isn’t around to visit.

And while tidying up by shaving or trimming the area is perfectly acceptable, medical experts advise against douching to prepare for your appointment. Douching can cause bad bacteria to grow out of control, triggering a vaginal infection.

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Because the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, simply washing the area with warm water while avoiding any soaps or perfumes, is enough to get the job done.


You Might Have To Pee

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A visit to the gynecologist can spark feelings of embarrassment and shame for some women. And for others, those feelings are more physical in nature than emotional.

Many women find that they suddenly have the urge to relieve themselves during a routine Pap smear. This can happen when part of the speculum presses up against your bladder, causing an urgent need to rush to the bathroom. It can also happen when your natural fight-or-flight response triggers a hormonal imbalance that causes your bladder to contract.

To shake the jitters, try to avoid drinking water and other beverages ahead of your appointment. Also, using the restroom beforehand can reduce your need to go during the exam.


Let Them Know It’s Your First Time

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Part of why Pap smears get a bad rep is because many women aren’t sure what to expect during their first appointment. And when you aren’t sure about something, feelings of uncertainty can quickly become feelings of fear.

To combat your concerns, let medical staff know that it’s your first time getting a Pap smear. This way, they can better prepare for your upcoming visit so that the process runs as smoothly as possible.

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Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions before and during your appointment. Doctors and nurses have a wealth of knowledge to tap into. Even better, they’re trained to help. Here is a list of questions you can ask so you have a better idea of what to expect:

  • How should I prepare for my upcoming visit?
  • What happens during the exam?
  • Will having a Pap smear hurt?
  • How long will the process last?
  • Can my partner or a family member be present with me during the exam?
  • How soon will I receive test results?


Request a More Comfortable Device

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A visit to the gyno can feel pretty scary. And seeing all those shiny metal medical instruments laying around the office definitely doesn’t help. But fortunately, Pap smears aren’t so bad. It’s important to remember that the medical staff is there to help and that includes making your visit as comfortable as possible.

During your visit, the doctor will likely use a vaginal speculum to perform the exam. A vaginal speculum is a metal or plastic medical instrument inserted into the vagina to open it so that the doctor can better see.

To ease your nervousness, you can request that your doctor use a smaller speculum during your Pap smear. A smaller speculum can be especially beneficial to women who aren’t sexually active as a larger one may cause pressure or some pain.


Ask For a Female Doctor or Nurse

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You might feel uncomfortable having a stranger probe around “down there.” This is a natural, common feeling that will likely decrease as you become more comfortable with the procedure.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that getting a Pap smear can feel downright intimidating. Luckily, you can relieve your anxieties by simply speaking up.

Perhaps you feel more comfortable with a female doctor performing the exam. If so, you’re not alone. According to the National Library of Medicine, more than a third of women admitted to preferring a female gynecologist.

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Prior to your appointment, request to be seen by a female doctor or nurse. Or if you prefer male, you can request that, too. Either way, letting medical staff know of your preferences can help them AND you better prepare for your visit.