For most people, a pap smear isn’t an appointment that they enjoy. However, as uncomfortable and awkward as it can be, it’s certainly worth it; pap smears are a lifesaving screening tool for cervical cancer.
“It’s looking for things that might make us want to do further testing to decide if there’s cancer or not,” said Dr. Jessica Shepherd, a gynecologist in Texas and the chief medical officer at Verywell Health.
Shepherd noted that more than 14,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer every year, and pap smears are a way to catch the disease early so it can be treated and potentially cured.
As important as it is to get pap smears when deemed necessary by your doctor, it’s also important that you’re not doing anything before your appointment to cloud your results.
Luckily, not much needs to be done to prep for a pap smear, but there are things you can do to make it more efficient and your results more accurate. That said, there’s one big thing you should try to avoid before your appointment, according to gynecologists.
Experts say you should skip any creams or intravaginal products.
“I would definitely not use any kind of intravaginal products, I would say that would be the main thing,” said Dr. Amber Naresh, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
This goes for things like creams for the treatment of yeast infections or vaginal estrogen products that are used to treat vaginal atrophy, she said. Additionally, spermicides and jellies should be avoided, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Naresh said you should stop using these kinds of products 48 hours before your scheduled appointment — they could interfere with the pap test and mess with your doctor’s ability to get a good sample. (Naresh pointed out that pap test is the updated name for pap smears due to changes in the testing methodology.)
Another intravaginal product she says she’d avoid before a pap test — and always? “There is no benefit to douching, so I wouldn’t do that anyway but definitely not before the pap,” Naresh said.
Does this include penetrative sex as well? It depends on your doctor. The rules regarding intercourse before a pap smear vary.
According to Shepherd, avoiding sex before a pap smear isn’t an across-the-board rule, and it won’t make or break your test. But she said it’s not a bad idea to opt out of sex for 24 hours prior to your test. For additional advice, you can ask your OB-GYN their preference.
While nixing intravaginal products before your exam was our experts’ main tip, they also offered a few other pieces of advice to help you prepare for your next appointment.
Here’s what else they want you to know:
Don’t worry about grooming.
Many folks put pressure on themselves to look a certain way before OB-GYN appointments through waxing or other pubic grooming methods — but both experts said that is not necessary.
“We don’t really require that people do any pubic hair grooming, that’s not important for us,” Shepherd said. “It’s really just we want people to be able to show up for their test.”
Consider rescheduling if your pap smear falls on the heaviest days of your period.
“There’s no problem with doing a pelvic exam while someone is menstruating,” Naresh said, but “if the period is heavy, it can sometimes be more difficult to get an adequate sample from the pap.”
So if you have an appointment for a pap smear on your heaviest flow days, Naredh said it might be beneficial to reschedule. While it’s usually fine, folks sometimes do have to go back for another test if the sample taken isn’t adequate, she noted.
You can still get a pap smear when you’re on your period. “If the bleeding is light, then it really isn’t a problem,” Naresh said.
Try to go into your appointment relaxed and prepared.
Certain situations bring in a relaxing vibe — pap smears ain’t it. But both Naresh and Shepherd said it’s important to try to stay relaxed before and during your appointment.
Naresh acknowledged that it is a tough ask, but said some of her patients listen to podcasts or music during their appointment to keep themselves calm. You can try this while you’re in the waiting room, too, so you aren’t tense when you see your doctor.
Additionally, to get the most out of your appointment, Shepherd said it’s a good idea to come armed with certain information. “We would want people to be aware of their past medical history, past sexual history because those things really help in the actual exam,” she said. This can change how doctors look at results or what information they share with the patient, Shepherd noted.
Lastly, Shepherd said it’s important to understand that this quick test can help decrease your risk of getting cervical cancer and is a way for you to advocate for your health.
She added that you should encourage your friends and family to get their screenings, too, so they can decrease their risk of the disease as well.