What’s on the calendar this week? Oh, you know, a Pap smear. But wait: Your period tracking app has an important alert. Your flow’s set to, well, flow in three days, just in time for that Pap smear. So what do you do? Can you get a Pap smear on your period?
Short answer: It’s actually up to you. However, consider moving your appointment to next week if possible. “If you’re able to schedule around your period, that’s preferable,” says Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at Winne Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. Getting a Pap when you’re not on your period “allows us to get all the cervical cells we need. For some people, their flow can be so heavy that it sometimes means we’re getting cells from blood,” she explains.
Whether or not you put on your period panties and go depends on your comfort level. Emphasis on your because your ob-gyn is fine either way. You won’t get any side-eye from them. They’ve seen lots of blood and other bodily fluids and are a-okay with yours. “Some patients apologize for coming in on their period. But I’m not bothered by it at all,” Dr. Greves says. If you’re squeamish about going in when you’re bleeding, that’s completely understandable and there’s nothing wrong with choosing to move your appointment. You can only be so comfortable in stirrups in the office, so might as well not add to the angst if you feel that way. (All feelings = valid feelings.)
Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of gettting a Pap smear on your period.
How do they do a Pap if you’re on your period?
If you come in on your period, your doc will place a vaginal speculum (you know, that tool that separates the walls of your vagina) into your vagina to look at your cervix. Depending on the amount of blood flow, your doc can use a large cotton swab to absorb any blood in the area, says Dr. Greves. Doing this helps doctors see inside to check for masses or other concerns, as well as remove the cells they need for the Pap test. They will also perform a manual exam, which also lets your doctor feel for abnormalities or areas of uterine tenderness.
And, there’s more to the exam than just the Pap—and all are important for your gynecological and overall health. As Dr. Greves explains, your doctors will ask if you have any new sexual partners (if so, they’ll recommend STI testing), any pain or bleeding abnormalities (which may lead to additional testing or imaging to make sure you’re a-okay), and domestic violence concerns, as well as perform a breast exam and listen to your heart and lungs.
Will the results be accurate?
Today, cervical testing analysis is more sensitive, so being on your period won’t specifically trigger an inaccurate result, says Dr. Greves. If you come in for a Pap on your period, your doc will make their best effort to get the cervical cells they need. If there aren’t enough cervical cells for a result, the test will come back flagged inadequate. “I let patients know that there’s a chance they’ll need to come back for another Pap if the result of the first one comes back insufficient to make a diagnosis,” she says. It’s just something to know and be prepared for should you decide to keep your appointment and go in.
Usually, if a Pap is insufficient, the retest will be covered under insurance. However, insurance plans and rules vastly differ, so if you’re concerned, call your insurance company and ask about their policy so that you can avoid any surprise bills.
Lastly, you may not even need a Pap smear this year. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)’s most recent Pap guidelines specify that women ages 21 to 29 receive a pap smear only once every three years. From age 30 to 65, you have three choices: Get a Pap smear once every three years, a high-risk HPV (hrHPV) test every five years, or a hrHPV test with a Pap every five years. Some women will have to get paps more often depending on their own personal health history and risk, so talk to your doctor about the right time to get that appointment on the calendar.
The bottom line?
Reschedule your Pap smear if you can. If not go ahead and keep the appointment but know there is a possibility you may need to repeat the test. If you do cancel your appointment, be sure to schedule a new one (during a non-period time—consult that app) right away. Cervical cancer screening saves lives by detecting changes in cervical cells before they develop into cancer, notes ACOG. This process of cancer development can take three to seven years, which is why you should stick to the recommended screening schedule.
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