Pap smear frequently asked questions

Why should I have a Pap smear?

Pap smear infographic - what every woman needs to knowPap smears look for changes in the cells of the cervix, located at the neck of the uterus (or womb). These cell changes are almost always caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and can be treated to prevent cervical cancer from developing.
The cervix has millions of tiny cells, and changes can happen to some of these cells without you knowing.

The What Every Woman Needs to Know brochure (PDF 4618KB) provides additional information about why it is important to have regular Pap smears.


A graphical representation of the female reproductive system

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What causes cervical cancer?

Changes to the cells of the cervix that can lead to cancer are caused by long-term infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common outcome of being sexually active, with 4 out of 5 people having HPV at some stage in their life. Most people with HPV have no symptoms.

Usually your body will clear HPV naturally in 1 to 2 years, however in a small number of cases, it can stay for longer and lead to cervical cancer. For more information on HPV see HPV vaccine frequently asked questions.

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Who needs to have a Pap smear?

All women who have ever been sexually active need to have a regular Pap smear, even if:

  • you are well and have no symptoms
  • you have received the HPV vaccine (also known as the cervical cancer vaccine)
  • you are pregnant
  • you have only had one sexual partner
  • same sex attracted/lesbian women
  • you no longer have periods
  • you no longer sexually active
  • you have had a hysterectomy (your doctor can advise you)

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If I have a disability, do I still need a Pap smear?

Yes. Women with disabilities need Pap smears too. If you have a disability and require special needs to assist in having a Pap smear, there are places with adjustable beds. Please contact your local health service provider to discuss if they can cater to your needs.

For more information see the:

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When should I have a Pap smear?

All women over the age of 18 who have ever been sexually active should have Pap smears every two years, or two years after first sexual activity (which ever is later) and continue until age 70.

If you are older than 70 and have had two normal tests in the past 5 year, your doctor will advise you whether you still need to have Pap smears.

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Where do I go for a Pap smear?

You can get a Pap smear from the following local services:

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How can women from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds get information on Pap smears?

Information resources are available in a number of languages. You can access these through either the website or by contacting the SA Cervix Screening Program.

The National Cervical Screening Program also provides a number or resources in languages other than English.

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Do I have to pay for a Pap smear?

Yes. When you make an appointment for a Pap smear, ask your health service provider if you will be required to pay for a doctor’s consultation fee and the Pap smear test.

  • If your doctor ‘bulk bills’ then they will claim the cost direct from Medicare and you will not have to pay anything or
  • You will need to pay the fee but you will be able to claim most of this back by going to your local Medicare office.

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What happens during a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a simple test that takes a few minutes to carry out

  • a doctor or nurse will take you to a private room where you will be asked to remove your underwear and to lie on your back on an examination bed
  • you will be given a sheet to cover yourself from the waist down, and if this has not been provided, you can ask for one
  • a speculum (an instrument which may be made of stainless steel or hard plastic) is gently placed in the entrance to the vagina so that the cervix can be seen
  • a small spatula and a tiny brush are used to rub some cells from the cervix
  • it should not hurt but it might feel uncomfortable. You can ask to have a pillow under you to help put your cervix in the right position.
  • the cells are wiped onto a glass slide and sent to a laboratory to be tested.

Remember, if you are nervous, you can take a support person (such as your worker, friend or family member) with you.

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What about the results?

Ask the clinic staff when to ring up for your results.

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What if my Pap smear is abnormal?

An abnormal result doesn't usually mean you have cancer. Almost all abnormal results are caused by HPV. Sometimes these go away on their own, and sometimes you may need treatment to stop them from developing into cancer.

For more information about abnormal Pap smears, see:

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If you can’t remember when you had your last Pap smear, or would like to know when you are due for your next one, you can contact the SA Cervix Screening Registry for the date of your last Pap smear.

If you have previously had a Pap smear, you will be reminded if you are overdue for your next Pap smear.

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What information is stored on the Cervix Screening Registry?

The following information is stored on the SA Cervix Screening Registry:

  • the date of your last Pap smear
  • your Pap smear results
  • your name
  • date of birth
  • address
  • Medicare number
  • your doctor’s name and address

All information recorded on the SA Cervix Screening Registry is confidential. See How is my privacy protected? for more information on how we ensure your information is confidential.

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How do my results go on the Registry?

When you have a pap smear, the results are sent from the laboratory to the Registry. If you don’t want your name and address recorded on the Registry, then tell the clinic staff when you have your pap smear.

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How is my privacy protected?

Only you, your doctor and the laboratory have access to your details held on the Registry. We are also required to forward the details of any cases of cervical cancer to the SA Cancer Registry. This information is protected under the South Australian Public Health Act 2011 and the South Australian Information Privacy Principles Instruction (Premier and Cabinet Circular No 12).

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How can I update my contact details on the Cervix Screening Registry?

If you have moved address and would like to make sure you continue to receive reminder letters, you can contact the SA Cervix Screening Registry by:

  • phone
  • email* 
  • writing a letter*.

*Please make sure you include your full name, previous address and date of birth for identification purposes, along with your new address.

You can withdraw your details from the Registry at any time by contacting 1800 901 112. This means you will not get a reminder letter and your doctor will not be able to access your history.

Alternatively, you can remain on the Registry but request that no correspondence be sent to you.

You can now also update your address details by using the notify change of address feature on the Government of South Australia website.

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What are the benefits of being on the Register?

Being on the register means:

  • reminder letters are sent when you are overdue for a Pap smear. The timing will depend on the result of your last smear
  • the Registry follows up abnormal results so they are not overlooked
  • the laboratory and your doctor can understand your Pap smear result better

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What changes are coming to the National Cervical Screening Program?

From 1 December, 2017, the two yearly Pap smear for women aged 18 to 69 will change to a five yearly human papillomavirus (HPV) cervical screening test for women aged 25 to 74. For further information about the changes please read the frequently asked questions page

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Will self-collection/self-screening be offered with the new program?

Self-collection for HPV testing will only be offered for women who:

  • have never had a cervical screening test and are 30 years or over or
  • are under-screened defined as overdue for cervical screening by two years or longer and are 30 years of age or over.

The recommendation is that these women may be offered the option of self-collection in a clinical setting, such as a doctor’s surgery or Family Planning clinic. If the self-collected sample tests positive for HPV, the woman will need to return to her doctor or nurse for further testing or referral to a specialist.

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