It’s time for your first pap smear, and you’re beyond nervous. I’m sure you’ve had friends and family share their experiences. Yet, you’re still scared, which is totally okay. The purpose of this series is to increase your awareness of gynecological health. This way, you’ll know what to expect and will feel confident taking charge of your health.
However, knowing what to expect still won’t erase the fact that your first pap smear is awkward. Honestly, I don’t think there’s ever a point in time when they’re not embarrassing. I mean, you’re lying on an exam table half-naked while a doctor provides a vaginal exam. Yeah, it’s awkward. As promised in the last post today, we’ll focus on the pap smear test and why it’s important.
What’s The Purpose of A Pap smear?
To be brief, a pap smear is a test that looks for abnormal cervical cells and precancerous cells that may indicate cervical cancer. Making the pap smear a powerful screening tool for the early detection of cervical cancer. As discussed in the prior post, the pap smear is a part of the well-woman exam and depending on whether you’re sexually active or not, you can choose to test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). See Well-Woman Exam Expectations You Should Have For Your First Exam To Make It Easier to better understand this examination.
When Should You Have A Pap smear?
Generally, it’s recommended women 21 and older receive their first pap smear. Regardless if you’re sexually active or not. Additionally, it’s recommended to have a pap smear every 2-3 years. However, there are instances in which you may need a pap smear earlier than this. If you’re experiencing debilitating painful periods that cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps that don’t respond to medication. Your doctor may recommend a pelvic exam.
Other instances in which a pap smear is recommended before 21 is if you have issues with:
- Abnormal bleeding
- Irregular periods
- Recurrent vaginal infections
- Or you’re sexually active.
Receiving Your First Pap smear
You’ve learned that the Pap smear is part of the pelvic examination. And pelvic examinations are done during a well-woman exam. Now, let’s get more specific about what happens during your first pap smear, how to prepare, and what NOT to do before your examination.
The Pap smear
After you are brought to the exam room, you’ll change into a hospital gown and wait for the doctor. When they arrive, they’ll examine your chart and want to know the purpose of your visit. You will explain it’s your first well-woman exam. If you have irregular periods, abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual cervical fluid, or painful periods that interfere with daily activities, discuss them.
Ask them what tests or exams can identify the root cause. Also, discuss options that don’t focus on hormonal intervention like the birth control pill. These questions are super important because birth control pills don’t “fix” these issues. Identifying the root cause, whether it’s something simple or complex like a reproductive disorder, is imperative to your health. I’ll discuss this topic in more depth in a future post. See 7 Reasons Why Your Period Is Irregular for more context regarding irregular periods.
After this, the pelvic examination begins. First, there’s the external vaginal examination. Then the pap smear. Typically when it’s your first pap smear, they explain what’s happening step by step. If they don’t, you can request them to do so to help ease your nerves.
The pap smear begins with the speculum’s insertion (a unique tool used to allow the doctor to view your cervix) into your vagina. Usually, the doctor will instruct you to take a deep breath as they insert the speculum. Additionally, a lubricant is used to decrease discomfort and ease speculum insertion.
After inserted, the speculum is opened to widen the vagina, so the cervix is visible. Next, a soft swab is used to collect the cervical cells for testing (shown in the photo below). The swabbing part can be a wee bit irritating, but it passes quickly. If you decided to have STI testing, the inner vagina is also swabbed. Finally, the speculum is removed, and the pap smear is done. They will progress to the bimanual exam, as discussed in the first post in the series.
Preparing for Your First Pap smear
So, you know what to expect, but how do you prepare for it? Good question! Aside from the basic things such as choosing a doctor, understanding your insurance benefits, and scheduling an appointment. But, what about vaginal hygiene? Are there any specific guidelines you should follow? And, what are you not allowed to do before your pelvic exam? Glad you asked! Let’s start with vaginal hygiene, the best time to schedule your pap, and what not to do beforehand.
It’s common to worry about vaginal hygiene before your first pelvic exam. But, you need not worry; gynecologists don’t have specific grooming instructions. However, appropriate personal hygiene is recommended. When it comes to how long or short pubic hair should be, whatever you feel comfortable with is fine.
At some point in time, we’ve all been self-conscious about the way our vaginas smell. But, don’t worry because all vaginas have a musky scent. This includes mine, yours, and anyone with a vagina. Nothing is wrong with you, and your doctor won’t think you smell weird because it’s normal. And, you’re normal, so don’t stress over it.
Knowing When To Schedule Your Pap smear
Before scheduling your exam, you need to know where you are in your menstrual cycle. Generally, doctors recommend that your pap is scheduled 1-2 weeks after your period. But, it can be done before. See, All About Ovulation And When To Expect Your Period to learn more about your menstrual cycle.
If you start your period when your pap smear is scheduled, call and ask if you need to reschedule. The majority of doctors prefer not to perform a pap during your period since menstrual fluid can interfere with exam results. However, if your flow is light, some doctors may opt to continue. Either way, call ahead to confirm.
What Not To Do Before Your Pap smear
Lastly, there are things you should avoid before your pap smear. You should avoid the following products and activities 48 hours before your pap smear.
- Sexual activity
- Spermicides (foam or jelly)
- Vaginal lubricants
Lastly, do not douche 3 days before your appointment. However, it’s not a good idea to use vaginal douches anyway. They can increase the risk of vaginal irritation, yeast infections, and bacterial infections. So, if you’re using them or thinking of using them, reconsider. Or, talk with your doctor about them to get their professional opinion. I’m quite positive it will be no. See, Why Douching Isn’t Beneficial for Vaginal Health to learn why douching isn’t essential for vaginal health.
Key Points To Keep In Mind
You’re going to be super nervous and feel awkward during your appointment. This is unavoidable. It’s a new experience, and it’s normal to feel anxious. However, if you let them know it’s your first pap smear, they will walk you through the process step by step. Furthermore, having a trustworthy person accompany you to your appointment can decrease pre-exam jitters.
What You’ve Learned So Far
We covered the basics of what a pap smear is, its purpose, and when it’s recommended to have your first one. Additionally, we went into more detail regarding the actual examination and what to expect. Lastly, you learned about proper vaginal hygiene and what to avoid 3 days to 48 hours pre-examination.
Hopefully, you feel confident about your first well-woman exam. But, now you’re wondering how to choose a gynecologist? In the next post of this series, we’ll discuss how to go about choosing a gynecologist for your first well-woman exam.