What’s the Difference Between a Pap Smear and a Pelvic Exam?
posted by OB/GYN | October 26, 2018
Pap smears and pelvic exams help doctors assess gynecologic health, but they are not the same thing. A pelvic exam is a medical inspection of the reproductive system. A Pap smear, on the other hand, is a test to screen for cervical cancer.
If you are having unusual symptoms related to your reproductive tract, your doctor may perform a pelvic exam to diagnose your condition, but pelvic exams are frequently part of a routine check-up as well. Your doctor or gynecologist may perform a Pap smear during a pelvic exam, which may explain why some people use the terms interchangeably.
During a Pap smear, your doctor takes a sample of cells from the interior walls of your cervix and sends them to a lab. At the lab your cells are tested for abnormalities that could indicate cancer or potential for developing cancer. To get a sample of the cells, your doctor will need to access your cervix. First, your doctor will have you lie on a table with your legs up in stirrups. He or she will then insert a hinged instrument into the vagina called a speculum to widen the vaginal canal and reach your cervix. Opening the speculum does not cause pain, but it does put pressure on the vagina. To relieve the pressure, try to keep your abdomen as relaxed as possible. Once your doctor has collected a sample of cervical cells, he or she will remove the speculum and prepare the cells to go to the lab for analysis.
A pelvic exam is frequently performed as part of a routine physical examination to assess your gynecologic health. Diseases of the reproductive tract may produce abnormalities that your doctor will notice on examination before you start having any symptoms, which means that any necessary treatment can begin early. Because a pelvic exam also requires opening the vagina with a speculum, the doctor will often perform a Pap smear while the pelvic exam is in progress.
There are two parts to a pelvic exam: inspection (looking at pelvic structures) and palpation (feeling the pelvic region). During palpation your doctor, while wearing gloves, will place two lubricated fingers inside your vagina with one hand while gently pressing down on your abdomen with the other hand to feel your internal organs, such as your ovaries and uterus.
The inspection part of a pelvic exam involves both an external and internal visual exam. The internal exam requires the use of a speculum so that the doctor can see the cervix and vaginal walls. The external exam consists of looking at your vulva to check for any abnormalities such as swelling, irritation or sores.
Regular Pap smears and pelvic exams are an important aspect of women’s health. Consult your doctor to find out how often you should undergo a pelvic exam or a Pap smear. Depending on several different factors, such as general health or sexual history, some women may need to have them more often than others.
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.