I remember the first time I got a Pap smear, I was really nervous. Not only was I definitely not looking forward to putting my legs up in those weird metal stirrups and having a stranger stare deep into my vag, but the nagging question that kept endlessly circling in my mind was definitely, "Do Pap smears hurt?" Dear God, I hoped not.
To back up a little, just in case you don't know, a Pap smear is a method used to screen your cervix for cancerous and precancerous cells, essentially by scraping off some cell samples and testing them. I know, the word "scraping" doesn't sound all that promising if you're worried about the pain factor of such a procedure, but rest assured, there are a few things that might ease your mind if you're worried about what the process might feel like.
The truth is, a Pap smear shouldn't technically hurt. Like, there normally shouldn't be any acute pain when you get one. That being said, it is very, very common for the process of a Pap smear to be physically uncomfortable. But the good news is that, despite the awkwardness, Pap smears don't take all that long to do.
Let's break down what's really going on throughout the whole process.
First, you undress and put on a little paper gown. Then you lie down on an exam table, and place your heels up in metal stirrups. Your doctor or nurse practitioner then inserts something called a speculum into your vagina (FYI, the "tube" between your cervix and your vulva is where your vagina is located), a tool that holds your vaginal walls in place so that your cervix is in better view and more accessible.
The insertion of the speculum is where some of the more uncomfortable feels can happen, as the sensation can feel like pressure, or slight pain or irritation. If you have a smaller or tighter vagina, this might be a more uncomfortable moment for you compared to others — but that's totally OK and completely normal! Though it may sound obvious, what I find really helpful is to simply breathe through the process. I'll admit, I actually yelped out loud one of my first times getting a Pap smear because I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by the whole thing. But TBH, I didn't yelp because of pain; it was mostly just because of nerves. It's a sensitive area, what can you do!
Once the speculum is inserted, the doctor then gathers the cell samples using a soft brush. To me, this moment feels strange and not particularly enjoyable, but it doesn't hurt.
And then bam, the whole thing's over! The doctor wipes the cell sample onto a glass slide, or into a special liquid that helps to preserve the sample, which is later sent away for testing.
It's not uncommon for women to experience a little spotting after a Pap, so don't be freaked out if that happens to you. But if you experience major bleeding that isn't your period after the Pap smear, you'll definitely want to check in with your doctor about it. It's also recommended to try to not have a Pap on the heavier days of your flow, as it could make the results of the test sample inconclusive or harder for the doc to interpret due to period-related hormonal changes happening in your body.
Again, levels of discomfort and pain during a Pap smear are going to be different for everyone. Some people do find that the process hurts a bit, while others barely notice it and strap into the stirrups with unshakeable comfort and confidence.
If a Pap smear does really hurt for you, you're not alone. But keep in mind it can be an indication that something else is going on down there.
Be sure to let your doctor know immediately if you're experiencing significant pain during your Pap smear. Remember, they're there to help you feel your best, no matter what.
If you're someone for whom Pap smears are super uncomfortable, do not let that deter you from getting them regularly, as the procedure detects cancer and might literally save your life. Cancer of the cervix is largely preventable if you remember to get regular screenings.
It's recommended that most women get regular Pap smears starting at about age 21.
Between ages 21 and 29, it's recommended that women get a Pap smear at least every three years, especially if you're sexually active. After that, if you've had three consistently normal Pap smears during your 20s (meaning no cancerous or precancerous cells were detected in your samples), it's then recommended that you get one about every five years. Other factors, like HIV infection or the detection of cancerous or precancerous cells, will likely mean that you should get screened more often.
So, if Pap smears are a source of great discomfort for you, you'll be glad to know, at the very least, that it doesn't necessarily have to be a yearly venture. And even if your trips need to be more frequent, try some relaxation techniques before and during the process. I promise, a little breathing and meditation can go a long way.