A Pap test, or Pap smear, is an important tool to protect a woman's reproductive and overall health. The Pap test helps detect cervical cancer. Most health insurance plans consider this a preventive test. Because of that, there's no cost to you. How often you need a Pap test depends on factors such as your age, medical history and the results of previous tests. Talk with your doctor about what frequency would be best for you. Understanding the Pap Test A Pap test is often part of a woman's routine general health exam. Your gynecologist or primary care physician will probably do the test. The doctor uses a small wand to gently swipe cells from your cervix. The cervix is the bottom part of your uterus. It connects your uterus and vagina. Your doctor places the cell sample on a slide or in a small container filled with fluid. It's then sent to a lab for evaluation. The lab technician will look at the cells to see if any appear abnormal. What a Pap Test Does The test detects changes in the cells of your cervix. These changes might be due to cancer. Changes can show up even before cancer develops. These are called pre-cancerous changes. Finding changes early is important. It means you can start treatment early. The right treatment can keep a pre-cancer condition from progressing to cancer. Also, cervical cancer itself is treatable if you catch it early. What Pap Test Results Mean The results of your Pap test will be either "normal" or "abnormal." Normal test results mean the cells in your cervix are healthy. There are no changes that indicate you might have cervical cancer or pre-cancerous cells. Abnormal results mean some cells in your cervix are of concern. This does not always mean you have cervical cancer. Some doctors use the term "inconclusive" for these results because they do not absolutely "conclude" something. If your Pap test results are abnormal but show only small changes in cells, your doctor may order another Pap test in six months to a year. Depending on the findings of your Pap test, your doctor may run a few more tests. This may include a test to look for the human papillomavirus (HPV). Nearly all cervical cancer results from infection with certain types of the HPV virus. You may also need a biopsy of the abnormal areas in your cervix to check for cervical cancer cells. A biopsy is another type of test that takes cell samples for examination. Treatment for Abnormal Results If abnormal cells are in an early, pre-cancerous stage, your doctor may recommend removing those cells from your cervix. The goal is to prevent cervical cancer from developing. Methods your doctor could use to remove these cells include: Freezing (cryotherapy) Use of electrical current (loop electrosurgical excision procedure, LEEP) Laser therapy If your test results show you have cervical cancer, your doctor will discuss your treatment options. The Bottom Line on Pap Tests A Pap test is a simple but life-saving test. It screens, or checks for, signs of cervical cancer. It's painless and quick. Getting an HPV vaccine can reduce your risk for cervical cancer, but you still need regular Pap tests. The vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV. Also, one normal Pap test does not mean you can skip having Pap tests in the future. For years, the standard recommendation was for most women to have a Pap test every year. Today, guidelines suggest a Pap test every three years, an HPV test every five years, or both tests every five years for most women. The recommendation for women 21 to 29 is a Pap test every three years. Check with your doctor on the testing schedule that would be best for you.