Waiting for Pap smear results can be a headache. This important test tells you a lot about your health, so you may be anxious just to know all is well. If you have had an abnormal Pap smear results in the past, waiting is even more stressful. The good news is that most Pap results arrive reasonably quickly, so you can get the information you need to know and act accordingly.
Pap smears, sometimes referred to simply as “Paps,” are tests used for detecting cancer cells in the cervix. This test is named for its developer, George Papanicolau. Pap smears are a part of most routine gynecological exams. During the test, the doctor inserts a speculum into the vagina and uses a cotton swab or a small brush to pick up some cells from the cervix. These cells are transferred to a slide when the doctor wipes the swab or brush across the surface of the slide and fixes them in place with a special solution. The slides are sent to a lab where the cells are examined. The lab reads the slide, searching for abnormal, pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.
Some Pap smears are read without technology, while some are scanned using a computer program; PAPNET and FocalPoint are two common programs for reading Paps.
The amount of time you have to wait for results depends on where you live and where you had your Pap done. In some cases, results come as soon as two days later, while some women may face a wait time of up to two weeks. The workload of the lab that reads the results determines how quickly they're returned. At the time of your exam, your doctor will tell you when you can expect the results and how they will be delivered to you. Often, doctors mail a card advising a patient of normal results and make a phone call if the Pap smear indicated abnormal cells.
Extended Waiting Times
There are things that can delay your Pap smear results. If the doctor did not collect a sufficient supply of cells for testing, your results will be returned and the test will need to be repeated. Semen can make the smear difficult to read, so if you have had sex without a condom within 24 hours of your exam, your results could take longer than normal or the test may need to be repeated. The same holds true for smears taken during menstruation.
To reduce your chance of delayed results or repeated tests, abstain from sex at least one day before your exam and reschedule your appointment if you begin menstruating the day of the smear.
Understanding the Results
Normal results mean you’re in the clear. Otherwise, your tests may indicate that you have an infection, cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells that may or may not be pre-cancerous) or cancerous cells. Your doctor will advise you on the next step to take.
Pap smears are generally done annually, unless there is an abnormal result. If you have abnormal cells, your doctor may want another exam in six months.