Pelvic Exam vs. Pap Smear: What’s the Difference?

Knowing the difference between a pelvic exam and a Pap smear can be confusing. Both exams are typically performed during the same appointment, but there are significant differences to be aware of so you can take the best care of your health.

What is a Pelvic Exam?

A pelvic exam is when the doctor evaluates your reproductive organs. The purpose of a pelvic exam is to assess your gynecological health and is a routine checkup. During the exam, the doctor will check your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus and pelvis for any abnormalities.

Typically, women have their first pelvic exam at 18 years old and have routine pelvic exams during annual checkups. Some women may have pelvic exams earlier or more frequently if they experience menstruation problems such as pelvic pain or abnormal bleeding. Talk to your doctor about how frequently you should have pelvic exams.

What to Expect During A Pelvic Exam

You don’t need to do anything special to prepare for your pelvic exam. For your own comfort, you might want to schedule your exam on a day when you don’t have your period. It can also be more comfortable if you empty your bladder before the exam.

The doctor will ask you to change into a gown before the exam begins. You’ll lie on your back on an exam table and place your feet in supports, or stirrups, on the corners of the table. Your doctor will begin by checking your vulva for any signs of irritation, redness, sores, swelling or other abnormalities.

Next, the doctor will use a speculum, an instrument shaped like a duck’s bill, to spread open your vaginal walls and examine your vagina and cervix. Relax as much as possible to reduce the discomfort of the speculum and let your doctor know if it causes pain at any point.

The doctor will perform a physical exam to check your uterus and ovaries. The doctor will insert two lubricated, gloved fingers into your vagina with one hand and use their other hand to palpate your abdomen and pelvis. The doctor will check the size and shape of your uterus and ovaries, noting any tender areas or unusual growths.

What is a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a procedure to test for cervical cancer. The exam is performed to collect cells from your cervix in order to detect changes or abnormalities in your cervical cells. A Pap smear is sometimes confused with a pelvic exam because it is typically performed during a pelvic exam.

It’s recommended women have their first Pap smear at 21 years old and have the exam every three years. Ask your doctor for the recommended schedule for your Pap smear exams.

What to Expect During a Pap Smear

To make sure your Pap smear is most effective, try not to schedule the test during your period. The test can still be performed, but for the best results it’s best to avoid this time in your cycle. Also avoid intercourse, douching or using vaginal medicines or spermicides as these may remove cells from your cervix.

Similar to a pelvic exam, you will be asked to change into a gown and lie on a table with your feet in stirrups. The doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold the walls of your vagina apart so the doctor can see your cervix. The doctor will then use a soft brush or flat scraping device to collect cells from your cervix. You may feel pressure from the speculum, but the process usually isn’t painful.

The cells will then be analyzed for abnormalities or the presence of viruses like the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to the development of cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about the types of tests your cells will undergo and when you can expect your results.

Knowing the Difference

Both pelvic exams and Pap smears are important for your personal health and wellness. Knowing the difference between the two exams helps you better understand the purpose of each test and how it can help you stay informed.

At Women’s Care, we perform regular Pap smears and pelvic exams. We know these tests and their results can cause a lot of anxiety, but we work to create a comfortable environment for our patients. We walk our patients through the test results to help them understand their personal health.