What to expect for your first Pap test

For some women Pap tests can be a little scary the first time, particularly if you're not sure what to expect. The good news is that the whole procedure is usually done within just a few minutes.

Having regular Pap tests is the best way for women to protect themselves against cervical cancer. A Pap test looks for changes to the cells of the cervix that, if left untreated for a number of years, could develop into cancer. Thankfully, most cell changes aren't dangerous and will either clear naturally from our bodies or will go away with the right treatment.

This website includes lots of information on Pap tests so you might find it worthwhile to spend some time familiarising yourself with the basics. If you still have any questions you can ask your doctor or a nurse, or call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.   

Who needs a Pap test?

PapScreen Victoria recommends all women aged 18 to 70 who have ever been sexually active have a Pap test every two years, or one to two years after first sexual activity, whichever is later. That said, it's fair to assume that almost all women take part in regular cervical screening throughout their lives, which makes it a normal and natural part of being a woman.

Sexual activity includes genital-skin to genital-skin contact, not just intercourse. This is why even if you are a virgin you may still need to have Pap tests.

If you are still unsure whether you need a Pap test, visit Who should have Pap tests? for more information.

On the day

When the time has come for your first Pap test, try to stay as relaxed as possible as this will help ensure any physical discomfort is kept to a minimum.

The doctor or nurse will ask you to remove your clothing from the waist down, and lie on your back or your side. It is likely that you will be given a sheet to drape across your stomach and thighs so you are not completely exposed.

Once you are comfortable you will be asked to bend your knees so the doctor or nurse can begin the procedure by inserting an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of the vagina apart and allows a clear view of the cervix. It is usually plastic and disposable, but some Pap test providers prefer to use the metal variety.

For some women, this part of the test can be a little awkward, and initially you might find it a bit embarrassing. Just remember that this is a very standard procedure that most women take part in, and for the doctor or nurse it's a very normal part of their job.

Once the speculum is in place, a spatula or brush is inserted through it to take a swab from the cervix. This may feel a bit strange or uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be painful, and it only takes a minute or two. Once the doctor or nurse has taken some cells for examination, they will remove the speculum and you will be able to get dressed.

The cells from the cervix are then spread onto a glass slide and sprayed with a solution, before the doctor or nurse sends them to a laboratory for a closer look. The cells are examined for any abnormalities of which some, if left untreated, could lead to cervical cancer.

Getting your results

Ask your health provider about when you should expect to have your test results returned.

If your results are normal and show no cell abnormalities, all you need to do is remember to come back in two years for your next Pap test.

If your results show some abnormalities to the cells, your doctor will advise you on your next steps and possible treatment options. It's important to remember that most abnormal cells are not caused by cervical cancer, and can usually be treated quickly and painlessly.

More information

There are lots of things you can do to help make your first Pap test a little less overwhelming – visit our Tips page for ideas.

If you have any questions or if you would like to speak to someone about your Pap test results, you can ask an expert or call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20

Cancer Council Helpline