When Your Pap Smear Is 'Abnormal'

Health Writer
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A pap smear is a screening test used to detect cervical cells that are not normal. It helps in the early detection of cervical cancer, especially when it is part of your annual gynecological examination. It is usually recommended to begin pap smears by the age of 21 or within 3 years of becoming sexually active.

False Positive

Sometimes you will receive a false positive. This is when your test results indicate there are some abnormal cells in your cervix but there are not actually any. Pap smears results are not always 100 percent accurate and you may be told you have a false positive.

When Results are Abnormal

An abnormal result on your test indicates that cells on your cervix do not look normal. This is often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease. Frequently, these changes will disappear on their own, but some types of HPV do cause cervical cancer. Having annual pap smears is the best way to detect cervical cancer in precancerous stages.

Other reasons for abnormal results may be:

  • Yeast infections
  • Bacterial infections
  • Herpes
  • Recent sexual activity

Some women may get positive results when going through menopause. Having an impaired immune system can also cause changes in your cervix. According to the American Pregnancy Association one in ten pap smears show abnormal results but most of the time, these abnormalities are not serious.

Follow Up Tests

While it is certainly scary to hear that your pap smear results were "abnormal," most of the time this doesn't mean you have cancer although your doctor will probably want to do some additional testing to find out the reason for the results. Because abnormal cells on the cervix can disappear on their own, your doctor may simply want to repeat the test. Based on the results of the second test, your doctor will order additional tests, follow up with another test in several months or ask you to return in one year for your annual exam.

Some of the tests your doctor may recommend are:

  • Colposcopy - a colposcope, a large microscope, is used to view your cervix
  • Endocervical curettage - a curette, a small tool shaped like a spoon, is used to take cells from your endocervical canal
  • Biopsy - a small amount of cervical tissue is removed and sent to a lab to be viewed under a microscope

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for an abnormal pap test. Your treatment would depend on the cause of the abnormal cells. For example, if you are found to have an infection, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat the underlying infection. If your abnormal cells are found to be moderate or severe, your doctor may suggest treatment to destroy or remove the abnormal cells.

References:

"Abnormal Pap Smear," Updated 2007, Nov, Staff Writer, American Pregnancy Association

"Pap Test Fact Sheet," Updated 2009, Jan 14, Reviewed by Edward L. Trimble, M.D, WomensHealth.gov