Pap Exam 101

Find out what the pap smear exam really is and what you can expect during this most feared visit.

Sanaz Majd, MD
5-minute read

A reader recently asked me to write about the female pap exam, and I thought it was a great idea for two reasons:

  1. I often see young women in my office for their first exam, in a state of great fear and anxiety, who perhaps wouldn’t feel that way if they knew what the process really entailed.

  2. I also see women of all ages and backgrounds who still don’t really know what a pap smear is and what they are being tested for.

So I thought I’d devote this entire episode to shedding light on the pap smear exam.

When and How Often Should You Get Your Pap Exams?

Newer national guidelines recommend getting your first pap smear starting at age 21, whether or not you’ve been sexually active.  Once you have at least three normal pap smears in a row, most patients can move on to a three-year schedule.  We no longer call the pap smear exam “annuals,” because they are no longer done annually for many patients who are low risk.   

How to Prepare for the Pap Exam

After performing so many pap exam, here are two Quick and Dirty Tips that I recommend in order to prepare you for your pap exam:

  1. If you had your previous pap done at a different clinic, be prepared to bring in the name and phone number of that clinic.  Your doctor may want to have a copy of those records, especially if you’ve had an abnormal pap result before.

  2. If you need refills of any hormonal contraceptives, bring them to your visit as well.  Very often I get a new patient who comes in requesting a refill of a birth control pill she was prescribed by another provider. But she is unable to remember the name of the medication!  Bringing your pills with you will help prevent delays in getting your refills.

The History:  What Your Doctor Will Ask You During Your Pap Visit

Whether you are there for a headache, high blood pressure follow-up, or your pap smear exam, every doctor will start the visit with what we refer to as the patient’s “history.”  Most doctors will ask a combination of the following questions, either directly or via a form you’ll have to fill out. So have the following information at hand:

  1. How many times have you been pregnant, and how many children did you deliver?

  2. Are you married or single?

  3. How many sexual partners do you currently have, or have had in your lifetime?

  4. What type of birth control (if any) do you currently use?

  5. Have you ever had an abnormal pap result, what did it show, and when?  Did you have any treatments for your previously abnormal pap smear?

  6. Have you ever been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), and have you ever been diagnosed and/or treated for an STI?

  7. Are your periods regular?  When was the first day of your last cycle?

  8. Is there any family history of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer?  If so, who in your family and at what age were they diagnosed?

If you are interested in birth control, and/or getting tested for STI’s, please make sure you bring this up to your doctor during your visit, preferably in the very beginning.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.