Can I Get a Pelvic Exam or Pap Smear on My Period?
If you feel pretty damn proud of yourself for scheduling a Pap smear or pelvic exam, we don’t blame you. This kind of preventive care is incredibly important but also easy to put off or cut from your schedule the moment you get too busy. So, kudos to you. But what are you supposed to do if you realize your period happens to coincide with your appointment?
First, let’s go over the difference between a pelvic exam and Pap smear.
You might mentally lump these together under the category Important Vaginal Exams You Know You Should Get, but they’re a little different.
During the exam, your doctor will check your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, rectum, and pelvis for any abnormalities, the Mayo Clinic says. This typically involves performing a visual inspection of your vulva to look for anything like irritation or sores, inserting a speculum to hold the walls of your vagina apart to view your vagina and cervix, and doing a manual exam to feel your pelvis, inside your vagina, and possibly inside your rectum.
A Pap smear, also known as a Pap test, involves collecting cells from your cervix to detect cervical cancer and to look for cellular changes that suggest this kind of cancer may develop in the future, per the Mayo Clinic.
To perform a Pap, a medical professional will insert a speculum into your vagina, then take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat device called a spatula, the Mayo Clinicexplains. Not exactly the kind you cook with, but the same basic idea. Those samples go to a lab that can check for any potentially concerning changes in your cervical cells.
You can get a Pap during a pelvic exam, but it’s unlikely you’ll have one during every pelvic exam. Current guidelines recommend that people with vaginas start getting Pap smears at age 21 and get another one every three years until age 65. People with vaginas who are 30 to 65 can opt for a Pap smear every three years, a Pap plus HPV test every five years, or just the HPV test every five years, according to the most recent guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. (While a Pap looks for changes to cervical cells that can result from HPV, an HPV test specifically looks for the presence of this sexually transmitted infection, which is less common and more potentially concerning after age 30. Here’s more about how HPV tests work.)
You might need to have a Pap more frequently if you get an abnormal Pap result or have risk factors like a history of cervical cancer.
OK, but what happens if you have your period?
It’s usually OK to get both a pelvic exam and Pap smear when you have your period, but it may affect the results of your Pap.
Doctors say there’s usually no reason why you need to avoid getting a pelvic exam while on your period with one exception: if you’re having a pelvic exam because you’re dealing with weird discharge. “If someone is on their period, it’s going to be difficult to do an appropriate evaluation of an abnormal discharge,” Dr. Streicher says.
That doesn’t mean you should just cancel your visit, since abnormal discharge can happen for a variety of reasons that benefit from prompt treatment, like sexually transmitted infections. But it does make sense to call beforehand and discuss the specifics with your doctor or a member of their team so they can tell you whether or not to come in based on the full scope of your symptoms.
As for a Pap, you can technically still get one during your period, but it can still be better to schedule the test for a time when you don’t expect you’ll be menstruating. Depending on how heavy your flow is, your period may affect the results of your test.
“Usually if it’s during the lighter part of the cycle it shouldn’t be a problem,” Jessica Shepherd, M.D., a minimally invasive gynecologist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, tells SELF. “[However], sometimes women can bleed too much to get an adequate sample of cells for the Pap.”
Of course, you may not always know when your period is going to show up. “For women with irregular periods, there’s no way of knowing when they’ll get their period—I see that a lot,” Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF. “We may not get the best representation of cervical cells given that there will be an additional amount of red blood cells, but if this is the only time you can take to get your Pap test, you should still get it.”
The world won’t end if you decide to get a Pap even on your heaviest flow day. “The worst that will happen is you’ll have to go back to get retested,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF.
If your flow is heavy and you don’t want to take the chance that you’ll have to retake your Pap, it’s 100 percent OK to do a pelvic exam and then come back for your Pap when your period is done, Dr. Greves says.
Also, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t have these exams while on your period because it’s “gross” for your doctor. It’s not.
There’s nothing shameful or disgusting about your period. Bloody vaginas are basically a gynecologist’s bread and butter. “That’s what we do—we see people bleed all the time,” Dr. Streicher says.
With that said, it’s normal if you don’t quite feel comfortable getting examined while on your period. A good doctor will understand that, and while they might try to explain why you shouldn’t feel ashamed, they won’t (or shouldn’t) judge you for it. “Some women request not to be examined when they’re bleeding, and that’s fine,” Dr. Greves says.
As always, if you’re not sure what to do, call your doctor. And, ultimately, if you’re having any concerns about your sexual or reproductive health, you should see your ob/gyn whether you have your period or not.