Pap tests, or pap smears, are a routine method used to screen women for cervical cancer. For most women, it is a mildly uncomfortable test, performed quickly by your gynecologist, and then not thought about again until the next time around. The results are categorized as “normal”, “unclear”, or “abnormal. In most cases, an abnormal result is no cause for alarm. Tests can be inaccurate and unsatisfactory results can occur for a variety of reasons.
There are many reasons for your OB/GYN to get an “unclear” or “abnormal” result and most of them have nothing at all to do with cancer. The first and most important thing is that you do not panic.
What can cause an abnormal pap smear?
First, we need to talk briefly about the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus where it connects to the vagina. There are two types of cells found in cervical tissue: tall cells, or glandular cells, that make the mucus that protects the uterus, and thin, flat cells, called squamous cells, which are arranged in layers to protect the tissues below. If a pap smear comes back “abnormal” it means that either the tall or squamous cells appeared abnormal under the microscope.
There are several scenarios that can cause these cells to look abnormal for the lab technicians.
- Swelling or inflammation
- An existing infection caused by a virus, bacteria or yeast
- Benign (non-cancerous) growths called cysts or polyps
- Natural, hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy or menopause
- Recent sexual intercourse
If your OB/GYN has determined your results were unclear or abnormal, she will have you return for a second pap smear, or additional tests, to determine whether further action needs to be taken.
Unclear. If the results of the pap test are “unclear“, your MD will probably screen you for HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is a very common virus. The type that affects the genitals is usually transmitted sexually and is often asymptomatic. This is why regular visits to your OBGYN are so important. The sooner HPV is diagnosed and treated, the better.
If left undetected and/or untreated, HPV can cause pre-cancerous cells that can eventually become cancer cells. While HPV cannot be treated, there are treatments destroy the affected cells, which can help the immune system combat HPV, preventing it from becoming cancer.
Abnormal. If your results come back as “abnormal” your doctor will schedule another appointment for you. Depending on any other signs or symptoms of cervical abnormalities, a new test will be scheduled within a few weeks or a few months.
If your second pap smear comes back “abnormal”, your MD will want to take a biopsy of the abnormal cells so they can be evaluated in greater detail. If the cells are determined to be cancerous, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.
Help prevent “unclear” or “abnormal” pap test results
Preparing for your pap test can help you prevent erroneous results. Never schedule a pap test when you’re on your period. For the 48 hours prior to your test, do not:
- Have sex
- Use birth control jelly, cream or foam
- Douche or use vaginal wash
- Use a tampon
- Use medication in your vagina
Contact Overlake OB/GYN to schedule your pap test or to discuss your recent abnormal test results.