University Health and Counseling Services
Ambrose Center

Pap Tests


A Pap test is short for Papanicolaou (named for the doctor who invented the test) test, which is a test to detect cervical cell changes that may show early signs of cervical cancer. UHCS offers Pap tests, which should be started by women at age 21, and recommendations and referrals for any abnormal Pap test results. Pap tests are typically part of an annual well-woman exam, which women should have every year, regardless of the need for a Pap test.

From an Expert at UHCS:

As a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner, I often get questions from students about if a Pap test is the same as STD testing - they are not the same. There is likely some confusion because traditionally, both tests were obtained on a yearly basis for young women during a routine annual exam. Now, as Pap guidelines have changed in recent years, women seem to have even more confusion about what tests are being performed and for what purpose. The best way to know is to ASK your health care provider!

While abnormal Pap tests are fairly common in young women, cervical cancer is NOT. Most cervical cancer occurs in older women and often takes a decade or more to develop from mild cervical cell changes (or mild dysplasia) into cancer. Even though it is rare, screening with a Pap test on a regular basis starting at age 21 (as recommended by your health care provider) helps to reduce risk for cancer development. In addition, maintaining a healthy immune system, avoiding smoking and other tobacco use, and being vaccinated against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can reduce your risk for cervical cancer. While you may be able to go several years between Pap tests, you should continue to have yearly health exams to discuss other health maintenance issues.

While persistent HPV infection could lead to cervical cancer, it is not a routine test because it is SO common in young people and most often goes away on its own within 1-2 years for the majority of people. Recommended STD testing for young people is based upon a discussion of sexual history as well as guidelines for certain infections. For example, sexually active young people should be tested at least yearly for chlamydia. Not sure if you've been tested? Ask your health care provider or get re-tested. Testing is most often performed on a urine sample. For more information, see Sexually Transmitted Infections.

If you are a woman of reproductive age, you may qualify for the Family Planning Only Services program in Wisconsin, which covers the cost for many birth control methods, annual exams, Paps and STD testing and treatment.

~ Liz Falk, MS, WHNP-BC

More Information:

Information on Pap and HPV testing, including abnormal Pap test results - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Abnormal Pap video - This amusing yet informative video follows the story of a young woman diagnosed with an abnormal pap and follow-up treatment.

Updated 10/06/16


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