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When You Have an Abnormal Pap Test

Woman talking to healthcare provider.

The Pap test is a screening test that checks for cell changes in the cervix. The cervix is the opening of the uterus. In some cases, it checks for a virus that can cause cervical cancer. If your Pap results were abnormal, you may be worried. But there is no reason to panic. An abnormal Pap test result can mean many things. It may be due to changes (inflammation) caused by normal cell repair or infection. Or you may have a problem called dysplasia that could become cervical cancer. If so, know that dysplasia tends to grow very slowly before becoming cervical cancer. That’s why it’s so important to have Pap tests as often as directed. Pap tests can show cell changes in the cervix early. This is when treatment is most effective.

Talk with your healthcare provider

Talk about your results with your healthcare provider. Find out about any follow-up tests you’ll need. You may be asked to come back for a second Pap test in a year. This gives your cervix time to repair itself. Or you may be scheduled for a colposcopy exam. This lets your healthcare provider get a closer look at your cervix. He or she may take a biopsy of your cervix. This a small sample of tissue that is sent to a lab for more testing. In either case, keep your follow-up visits. They are one of your best safeguards against future problems.

Understanding your risk

Some lifestyle choices can raise your risk of abnormal cell changes. Did you start having sex at a young age? Have you had many sex partners? Have you had sex without using a latex condom? Do you smoke? Do you have an immune deficiency such as HIV? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are more at risk. One of the most common reasons for an abnormal Pap result is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). If your Pap results suggest you may have HPV, you may need more tests.

The Pap test

During the test:

  • A tool called a speculum is put into the vagina to hold it open. This lets your healthcare provider see the cervix.

  • A small brush, spatula, or swab is used to take cells from several areas of the cervix. The cells are put into a liquid or on a slide. They are then sent to a lab where they are checked for changes. Your healthcare provider will contact you with the results.

Online Medical Reviewer: Daniel N Sacks MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2020
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