Among the most common sexually transmitted diseases are human Papillomavirus (HPV) infections. Although the infection is usually asymptomatic, genital warts – called condylomata – may also appear on the vulva and/or vagina as small itchy bumps.

How does the Pap test work, and what is it used for?

Although most genital HPV infections regress spontaneously, in 10 percent of cases, the virus alters the mucous membranes of the cervix, slowly leading to tumor formation. However, the Pap test is a very effective prevention tool generally regarded as the first screening test that can diagnose cervical cancer early. 

The test is done by taking cells during a gynecological examination. These cells will then be analyzed in the laboratory to detect any cancerous lesions when they are still in an early and asymptomatic stage and thus intervene promptly. 

How often should you have a Pap test?

In general, Pap tests should be performed on women between the ages of 25 and 65 or before starting to engage in sexual activity. 

After the first Pap test, in line with ministerial guidance, the checkup should be repeated: 

  • Every year, in case there is a previous history of HPV or overt risk factors; 
  • Every three years, in case of no risk factors and in women who have never tested positive for HPV.

The patient can also ask her gynecologist to perform a Pap test annually.

When to perform the Pap test?

The test cannot be performed during menstruation. When booking your appointment, it is best to specify the interval between each flow, considering that more cells tend to be taken in the preovulatory period.

To avoid the risk of having altered results, it is best to avoid sexual intercourse in the three days before the examination, as well as ovules and vaginal douches. Oral contraceptives and intrauterine IUDs are not likely to interfere with the reliability of the test. 

You should always consult your gynecologist, who will be able to detect any condylomata or other Papilloma virus-related changes and offer precise indications and recommendations depending on your case.

After the Pap test

In case of a positive Pap test result, the patient will have to undergo a second-level examination called colposcopy.

Through the use of specific dyes, the examination allows visualization of areas of the cervix where the virus is found and which require future investigation by biopsy. Confirmation of the diagnosis can then be obtained by subsequent histologic examination. In some cases, swabbing for Papillomavirus may be necessary.

Prevention and vaccine

To avoid contracting HPV infection, some simple precautions should be remembered: For example, one should use condoms during sexual intercourse and take proper care of personal hygiene. 

In addition, the vaccine that protects the cervix from the most dangerous strains of HPV has been popular for several years. Studies have shown its effectiveness on adolescents to reduce the risk of transmission, and recently, some research has also validated its efficacy on the adult population and on those who have had the infection already.