You might want to give your doctor a call before your appointment, just in case.

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If you have a regular-as-clockwork menstrual cycle (and you're super organized), it's easy enough to schedule a Pap test (aka Pap smear) for when you don't have your period. But for many people, periods don't always come right on time—and in scheduling appointment with your ob-gyn (sometimes months in advance), they can overlap. When that happens, is it OK to get a Pap test while you're on your period, or should you wait and reschedule?

First things first: It helps to know exactly what happens during a Pap test. It involves taking cell samples from your cervix to look for signs of cervical cancer, as well as cellular changes (aka, precancers, caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV) that indicate cancer might develop in the future. 

During the Pap, your doctor inserts a speculum into your vagina to open it up and make it easier to take samples. This is done using a soft brush and a small stick (sometimes called a spatula), per the Office on Women's Health. Sometimes, your doctor will do an HPV test at the same time as the Pap test (this is called co-testing), also by taking samples from outside the cervix. The samples are then sent to the lab for testing. 

woman at gynecologist watercolor background
Credit: Getty Images

A Pap and/or HPV test is sometimes done during a pelvic exam, which is typically carried out as part of your annual well-woman visit. Of course, if you’re experiencing unusual vaginal discharge or pelvic pain, you can make an appointment for a pelvic exam at any time.

Current guidelines from the US Preventive Services Task Force recommend that people with vaginas get their first Pap test at age 21, then get one every three years until age 65. If you get an abnormal Pap result, or have risk factors like a history of cervical cancer, you might need to get a Pap more often. The frequency of Pap tests are also performed depends on a person’s prior pap results, their age, and personal preference, Rebecca C. Brightman, MD, a gynecologist in private practice in NYC and an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Health

As for getting a Pap test on your period, there's no reason you can't have one, though it may not be ideal if you're experiencing a particularly heavy flow. "A lot of blood might obscure some of the details of the cells, which may make it hard to read," Mary Jane Minkin, MD, FACOG, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics at the Yale University School of Medicine, tells Health. 

According to Dr. Brightman, "Pap tests are typically liquid-based cytology evaluations with the cervical cells placed in solution, and cervical cells can then be separated from blood in the lab to allow for proper analysis." But, again, if there's too much blood in that sample, it may obscure results. Board-certified ob-gyn Angela Jones, Astroglide’s resident sexual health advisor, agrees that a Pap test on your period is totally fine—"as long as your period isn't too heavy," she tells Health.

Unfortunately, there's no right answer for the question of "how heavy is too heavy?" But if you have a Pap test scheduled and you're bleeding heavily—like soaking through an entire pad or tampon—Dr. Brightman recommends calling your practitioner before your appointment. Some docs might err on the side of caution and recommend getting your Pap done when you’re not on your period. “There’s no way to predict which results will or won’t be affected,” Dr. Minkin explains. The same goes for an HPV test—while Dr. Minkin says a heavy flow shouldn't affect the results of that test, your doctor may still suggest you reschedule.

There's also the issue of your own comfort to take into account. If you're not comfortable getting a Pap test, HPV test, or even your annual well-woman exam while you have your period, it's best to reschedule and go back to your doctor on a period-free day (just don't forget!).

The bottom line: If you have your period and an ob-gyn appointment coming up, give your doctor's office a call to see what they'd prefer you to do, and then go from there. Depending on the timing of your period, your own comfort level, and your physician's professional opinion, some docs may suggest you still come in for your appointment, and others may suggest you try another day.

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