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Pap smears save lives

What you need to know about them, why you need to do them, how often and when?


Simply put, a pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer (cancer of the mouth of the womb). Different guidelines exist for different countries and different situations. I’ll share info on what prescribed for SA in both private and government settings.

Cervical cancer is caused by specific strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which grows just in the opening of the cervix and causes abnormal cells to start growing.

Pap smears detect these abnormal cells and the newer type of screening actually detects the virus too and therefore has a higher detection rate.

How often a woman needs to have a pap smear depends on the type of pap smear done. There is the traditional one which looks only at the abnormal cells, and the new one which picks up the HPV and the type. For the sake of simplicity I’ll call them A and B.

With test A, HIV negative women are advised to start testing at the age of 25, and for every 5 years until they are 55 with a normal result. With test B, they should have it done every 10 years until they are 55 with a negative result. This is adviced for government sector.

In private however, it’s every 5 years for test A and every 3 years for test B. The difference is simply because of availability of resources in government.

HIV positive women who use government services should have a pap smear every 3 years with test A and every 5 years with test B. They should have their first Pap smear when they are first diagnosed.

In private, HIV women will have their pap smear every year with test A and every 3 years with test B. Needless to say, most private facilities should be using test B as the traditional test A is being faced out.

It’s known that if these are standard practice guidelines and every woman had regular pap smears as prescribed, cervical cancer can easily be a thing of the past. So yes, Pap smears save lives.

And I keep saying this, if every woman went to have a pap smear within a week, all patients with cervical cancer will be picked up, all with abnormalities leading to cervical cancer will also be picked up.

All will get the necessary treatment before it’s too late.

At the current moment alot of cancers are diagnosed late where we cannot do much more to help. This is why it’s encouraged that every woman does this.

Please bear in mind that you don’t have to do a yearly pap smear unless you’re in private, your Dr uses the traditional pap smear with the glass and spray and you’re HIV positive. Most women can get away with only 4 Pap smears in their life time.

The most frequent times you’d need to have a pap smear then would be every 3 years for a lifetime.

This is a relatively painless procedure done in a consultation room and can be done by any Dr or qualified nurse.

When does it usually hurt? Honestly from experience, it’s with women who are not comfortable and become tense and therefore squeeze the pelvic muscles around the speculum, which then hurts.

So spare some time if your schedule and visit your local government clinic, your GP or gynae. Relax and be comfortable with it. It’s a necessary procedure that will save your life.

Also, spread the message, encourage your loved ones to do it and I promise you’ll have less to regret.