Cervical Screening (Pap) tests

Since 1991, the Pap test has been the primary screening test for cervical cancer in Australia.

The Pap test checks for changes in the cells of the cervix. Most of the changes are minor and may be caused by infections that can clear up on their own. If not, they may be easily treated. When the infection persists and when cell changes are not treated, it can lead to cervical cancer.

A Pap test does not test for cervical cancer or diagnose cervical cancer. It also does not check for other problems in the female reproductive system such as ovarian cancer or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

A Pap test is a screening test for women without symptoms. Women with symptoms, such as abnormal bleeding, discharge or pain, should always see their health practitioner, even if their last Pap test result was normal.

The screening procedure

A Pap test is a simple procedure in which a number of cells are collected from your cervix and sent to a laboratory where they are tested for any abnormal changes.

No drugs or anaesthetics are required and the test can be easily taken by a health practitioner. During a Pap test, an instrument called a speculum is placed into the vagina so the heath practitioner can see the cervix. A small spatula or a soft brush is used to collect cells from the surface of the cervix. The cells are then put onto a glass slide and sent to a laboratory where they are tested for any changes.

the female reproductive system

It only takes a few minutes to have a Pap test and should not hurt but may feel uncomfortable. You may wish to speak with your health practitioner about any concerns you have about the test. 

Reliability of Pap tests

The Pap test is the primary screening test currently used to detect early warning signs of cervical cancer in Australia. It is estimated that two yearly Pap tests will prevent more than 90% of the most common forms of cervical cancer.

Who should have Pap tests?

The ACT Cervical Screening Program currently recommends that all women should have their first screening (Pap) test two years after commencing sexual activity (this includes female to male and female to female sex) or at the age of 20, whichever comes later. 

Cervical screening (Pap) tests should then be continued every two years until the age of 70, unless otherwise advised by a health practitioner.

If you have received the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, you still need to have regular Pap tests, as the vaccine does not protect against all strains of HPV.

For more information on who should have Pap tests, read our Frequently Asked Questions.

How often you should have a Pap test?

A Pap test every two years significantly reduces your risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Having a Pap test more than once every two years is not necessary, unless advised by your health practitioner.

Where you can get your Pap test?

A cervical screening (Pap) test can be carried out at your GP practice, by your health practitioner. You may also decide to choose a health practitioner where you feel most comfortable and where is most convenient for you. If you would like to have a woman health practitioner, ask about this when you make an appointment.

Find out more about Pap test locations in the ACT.

Cost of Pap test

A Medicare rebate is available for Pap tests so you don’t pay for the test itself. However, health practitioners can charge their standard consultation fee for the appointment. Some offer bulk billing so ask your health practitioner to confirm what it will cost when you make your appointment.

Changes to the Cervical Screening Test

A new more accurate Cervical Screening Test will replace the current Pap test in late 2017. The new Cervical Screening Test is for women aged 25 to 74 years.

Where do I go for my new Cervical Screening Test?

In late 2017 a new Cervical Screening Test will replace the current Pap test. See your doctor or nurse for your new Cervical Screening Test. The way your doctor collects a sample will remain the same. However the laboratory test will change and will look for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV infection if left untreated may eventually lead to cervical cancer.

More information

Read our Frequently Asked Questions.

Read information in your language available from the National Cervical Screening Program.