Can a Pap Smear Detect HIV?

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Reproductive health can seem overwhelming, but this lesson will help straighten out some misconceptions about screenings and tests. The focus will be on Pap smears and HIV testing.

What Is a Pap Smear?

Cervical cancer, HIV, Pap smear, HPV, antibodies.... There's a lot to know about reproductive health, but don't worry, this lesson will break it all down for you. Let's start with the Pap smear, which gets its name from the doctor who started using it, Georgios Papanikolaou. At least they abbreviated it! Can you imagine saying Georgios Papanikolaou smear? Anyways, a Pap smear is a screening tool for cervical cancer. A cervix is found in females and is located between the uterus and the vagina.

The cervix

A Pap smear scrapes cells from the cervix to determine if they are cancerous. And why are doctors so worried about the cervix? Well most cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus or (HPV), which is the virus that can cause genital warts. There are actually about 100 types of HVP strains and 40 of them can be transmitted through sexual contact.

Most cervical cancer is caused by two of the types (type 16 and type 18, if you're curious). Doctors can easily treat cervical cancer if it is found early, and so it is recommended that most women get a Pap smear every three years or so, depending on the number of sexual partners.

What Is HIV?

Now that you know what a Pap smear is, let's talk a little about HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV can be transmitted through bodily fluids. For example, through sexual contact, blood exposure, and even through breast milk.


HIV has three main stages:

  • Stage 1: Infection. Here the HIV virus replicates in the infected person's body and creates flu-like symptoms. This occurs about 2-4 weeks after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms of HIV

  • Stage 2: Clinical Latency. During this stage, the infected person has no or really mild symptoms. Without medical treatment, this stage can last about ten years (with medical treatment, it can last a lot longer). The virus replicates, but not in the huge numbers seen during stage 1.
  • Stage 3: During this stage, the infected individual has AIDS, meaning the virus has damaged the cells that fight infection enough where the person can easily get infections and other illnesses. If a person is not treated, this stage results in death after approximately three years.


Okay now that you know a little bit about how HIV progresses, let's talk about how to test for it. Usually medical personnel use an antibody screening test. Typically, blood is taken and then the blood is screened to look for specific antibodies, which are cells that look for and attack foreign objects, such as viruses or bacteria. This particular test looks for HIV antibodies, in other words, if a person's body has these antibodies it means that the individual has HIV in his or her body.

There are other tests that look for the pieces of the actual virus, which work best if an individual has been recently exposed to HIV.

Can a Pap Smear Detect HIV?

And now the answer to the question you've been waiting for. Can a Pap smear detect HIV? The answer: NO!

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