As you mentally prepare yourself for your annual women’s exam and PAP smear, you may be asking yourself a few questions such as: What exactly is it? Do I need a PAP smear? How often do I need a one? While these questions rack your brain, just keep in mind that a PAP smear is a standard procedure, and there is no need to worry during your checkup.

The “PAP” in PAP smear stands for Papanicolaou, the last name of the man who developed the screening test. It was invented to detect cancerous and pre-cancerous cells caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). So, by getting a PAP smear on a regular basis, you are ensuring that you are either cancer-free or are catching early signs of cervical cancer before the condition gets serious. The procedure is very quick to complete and is virtually painless. During the process, your doctor will insert a speculum into the vaginal canal and then collect cells near the opening of the cervix. After that, your part of the exam is complete, but your doctor will examine the cells under a microscope to check for any abnormalities. Some women do experience some light spotting after the procedure is completed, but many women experience no symptoms or side effects.

Many women may feel a sense of dread before getting their annual female checkup, but putting off a PAP smear is not the best idea, particularly if you are between the ages of 21 to 60 and/or if you are sexually active. Many people who contract HPV and develop cancer do so shortly after becoming sexually active. If you have not gotten a vaccine for HPV, then you may be susceptible.

Depending on you and your doctor’s preference, a PAP smear does not need to be conducted every time you have an annual women’s exam. Guidelines vary on how often you should get a PAP smear, but recommendations suggest that you should get one every three to five years. However, abnormal results may require more frequent PAP smears every six to twelve months. Additionally, if you have concerns, your doctor will listen and determine if you should have a PAP smear more frequently. Keep in mind that a PAP smear is only designed to detect cervical cancer and may not detect other forms of cancer. Listen to your body and always voice any concerns you may have with your doctor.

While annual women’s exams are a great way to assess many physical changes and ensure good health, a PAP smear is a simple and safe way to detect early stages of cancer. Many early stages of cancer may be undetectable or even mistaken for other conditions (like cramps or digestive issues). While you should always consult a doctor when you notice dramatic changes in your body, some changes may not always be noticeable. Having PAP smears conducted at regular intervals ensures that you and your doctor can catch any changes that you may not notice on your own.