What is the difference between a Pap smear and a pelvic exam?

Many young patients have questions about Pap smears and pelvic exams. Here’s what to expect, why they’re important and how often you should get them.

The transition from the teenage years into young adulthood comes with many changes in development and questions about sexual and reproductive health. You may be wondering when it’s time to visit a gynecologist and what happens during a typical appointment.

“You should visit your OB/GYN once a year for a well-woman visit after you turn 21 or when you become sexually active,” said Katherine K. Holland, APRN with Norton Women’s Care. “Although it’s common to feel some apprehension about this type of visit, your provider can help ease any anxiety and answer whatever questions you may have — about your health and what to expect during the visit,”

Many young patients have questions about Pap smears and pelvic exams. Here’s what to expect, why an OB/GYN visit is important and how often you should have one.

Is a pelvic exam the same as a Pap smear?

No, a pelvic exam is not the same thing as a Pap smear. They commonly occur during the same visit, but both are not a requirement for every appointment. Both serve as important ways to keep you healthy, including prevention of certain medical conditions and screening for cancer.

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What is a Pap smear test?

A Pap smear (or Pap test) checks for cervical cancer and/or human papillomavirus (HPV). A Pap test can detect abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer. A Pap smear is a very brief test and involves brushing a tool against the cervix. This sample of cells is then tested for abnormalities.

How often should you get a Pap test?

Women should get their first Pap test at age 21. This test should occur every three years for woman ages 21 to 29. Women ages 30 to 65 should have a Pap test every three to five years.

What is a pelvic exam?

A pelvic exam consists of a physical exam of the outer and inner portions of your pelvic organs, including the vulva, vagina, cervix and uterus.

After your provider looks at your external genitals, they will insert a tool, called a speculum, into your vagina, which opens the vaginal walls enough to see the cervix. This is when a Pap test happens if it is needed. Afterward, your provider will check your uterus and ovaries by inserting a gloved finger (or two) into the vagina while palpating your abdomen.

If, at any point during the exam, you become uncomfortable, you can ask the provider to stop or pause. If it improves your comfort level, you can request that the provider explain what they are doing during each step of the exam and why it is happening.

How often you should get a pelvic exam?

A pelvic exam is required if you are experiencing symptoms, such as pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding, or pain during sex. A pelvic exam also is necessary if you are pregnant or have a history of gynecological conditions. A routine pelvic exam serves as an important part of preventive care and can catch some medical conditions early. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends patients have pelvic exams only when they have symptoms or have a medical history that requires it. Talk to your OB/GYN provider to discuss your medical history, concerns and goals — and make this decision together.

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