What You Should Know About Abnormal Pap Smears and the Next Steps to Available Treatments
February 3, 2015
Have you received an abnormal Pap smear? First, you can rest easy because it does NOT automatically mean you have cervical cancer!
A Pap smear is a procedure to check the health of the cells in and around a woman’s cervix. It’s important to note that Pap smears (pap tests) are not diagnostic tools. Rather, they are a screening tool. Hence, women can get an “abnormal” result, which only means that another checkup is required so your doctor can do a bit more investigative work.
Pap smears are important because cervical cancer is typically asymptomatic and, before the advent of routine Pap smears, it was often fatal; by the time a woman exhibited any notable signs or symptoms, the cancer was difficult to treat.
Note: Women should start getting Pap smears at 21 years of age or within three years of becoming sexually active. So, if you start having sex when you’re 16, you should have your first Pap smear when you are 19. The test uses a small sample of cells that are gently scraped from the cervix and evaluated by lab technicians. If there are any signs of abnormal cells – called dysplasia – your doctor will notify you. Pap smears are typically performed once every three years.
Abnormal Pap Smear Results Lead to Further Diagnostic Testing
If your Pap test comes back abnormal, you will receive a call and/or an email or text (depending on the communication modes you’ve specified for your doctor) alerting you that you need to schedule a follow-up appointment.
There are several reasons – non-cancer related – you might have received an abnormal result:
- Lab error. Humans aren’t perfect and those dedicated lab technicians are looking at microscopic cells. There might be an error in their reading, wires can get crossed or a wrong box can be checked, etc.
- Infection or inflammation. Any existing infection – known or not – can cause inflammation in your cervical tissue. This can lead to an abnormal reading. Further tests will illuminate whether you have an existing infection. If so, you will be able to start treatment.
- Trichomonas vaginalis. This is a sexually transmitted disease that causes painful urination, vaginal inflammation and discolored discharge with an odor. However, it can also be asymptomatic or you may have just been infected. Trichomoniasis is treated with a prescription.
- Recent sexual activity. Inflammation, irritation and/or semen can affect Pap smear results. This is why we ask that you abstain from having sexual intercourse for 24 hours prior to your Pap smear.
- HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). This is another STD that causes genital warts. While up to 60% of women may have the virus, the warts or affected tissues can be on the cervix, in the vagina or on the skin without women even realizing it. If left untreated, HPV can cause cervical cancer.
- Abnormal cells (dysplasia). These are cells that look outside the norm and can be precursors to cancer cells. Removing them is typically the best course of action.
What Happens If I Get an Abnormal Pap Smear Result
If you get an abnormal reading, your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment to determine the best course of action. She may simply opt to do another Pap smear to see what the results are.
Other diagnostic tests and treatments include:
Colposcopy. For this procedure, your doctor will use a special microscope to examine your cervical tissue in detail. From this, she may determine that you do – indeed – have atypical cervical cells. Read 7 FAQs About Colposcopies to learn more.
Biopsy. Your doctor may want to remove the cells and have them biopsied. In this case, the cells will be removed by one of a few methods and sent to the lab. You typically get your results back within a week.
Cryosurgery and Cone Biopsy. This is one option to remove the cells. For this, your doctor will freeze the abnormal cells and then remove a cone-shaped section of the abnormal cervical tissue for analysis. You may have watery discharge and a little bleeding following the procedure.
LEEP procedure. This procedure is similar to the cone biopsy, but your doctor will use a loop-shaped instrument to remove a section of the cervical tissue for analysis. Again, bleeding and discharge may occur.
Once your doctor has the results, she will schedule a follow-up. Even if your abnormal cells are not cancerous, she may still want you to return for another Pap smear in six months to a year just to err on the side of caution.
If you have questions about Pap smears or your recent abnormal results, please feel free to contact Women’s Health Associates so we can put your mind at ease. Are you looking for a second opinion or for a more caring and compassionate team to handle your wellness care? Schedule a consultation today.