Should You Be Worried About an Abnormal Pap Smear?
When your doctor says, "We need to talk about your Pap Smear," it's natural to jump to the wrong conclusion. Worst case scenario: Your abnormal pap smear means cervical cancer. More likely scenario? Something else is going on that's far less scary.
Pap smears are simple lab tests performed in the doctor's office, usually part of an annual well-woman exam. Your health care provider gently scrapes cells off your cervix (the lower part of the uterus that extends into the vagina). Usually, pap smear results are negative, indicating your cervix is healthy. Sometimes however, pap smears indicate an infection, unhealthy cervical cells, human papilloma virus, and/or cervical cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, about 55 million pap smears are performed each year and of those, only 3.5 million are abnormal, requiring further medical follow-up. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition estimates that about 10,000 American women are affected by cervical cancer annually. That means that most abnormal pap smear results are not cancer.
Women may hear one of these terms used to describe her abnormal Pap Smear results:
- Dysplasia. These cervical cells are not cancer but they may develop into very early cancer eventually. They look abnormal under the microscope but they don't spread to nearby healthy tissue. Dysplasia is usually classified as mild, moderate, severe or carcinoma in situ (abnormal cells are present only in the surface layer of cells).
- SIL (squamous intraepithelial lesion). This term describes abnormal changes in the squamous cells on the surface of the cervix. They can be low-grade (early changes in size, shape and number of cells) or high-grade (pre-cancerous and very different from normal cells).
- CIN (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia). This refers to abnormal tissue findings. Neoplasia means abnormal growth of cells and intraepithelial cells are surface cells. CIN is rated from one to three, depending on the thickness of abnormal cells.
- Atypical squamous cells. They aren't a definite abnormality but there's something different about the cervical cells that warrants further investigation.
With cervical cancer, abnormal cells spread deeper into the cervix or to other tissues or organs. Cervical cancer is usually (but not always) a slow growing disease. Incidences of cervical cancer have been steadily declining over the years in large part due to pap smears. Experts have also learned that the majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by Human Papilloma Viruses, and young girls and women can be vaccinated against it.
What if your pap smear is abnormal? First, take a deep breath and remember that the vast majority of abnormal pap smears are not cancer. Next, make a follow up appointment with your doctor for further examination. Most abnormal cervical cells can be treated and never turn into cancer. Talk to your doctor about how often you need to get a pap smear.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition
National Cancer Institute: Pap Tests
Sign Up for Free Newsletters
Ask Your Doctor the RIGHT Questions!
the most from your doctor visit.
Emailed right to you!
The Ask Your Doctor email series
may contain sponsored content.
18+, US residents only please.
Explore Original Articles About...
Get the MOST from QualityHealth
- Top Searches
- 1. Arthritis Management: Nature Heals
- 2. 5 Digestive To-Dos
- 3. Men: Should You Shave It or Leave It?
- 4. Today's Top Fitness Trends
- 5. Sugar and Osteoarthritis : The Link
- 6. Can't Afford Your Hospital Bills?
- 7. Stay Energized All Day Long
- 8. Phobias: Who Has Them and Why?
- 9. What If Your EpiPen Fails?
- 10. 5 Costly Medical Billing Mistakes
- 1. Hotter Temperatures Linked To Kidney Stones
- 2. Summer Bug Bites: What to Look For
- 3. Skin Health Advice with Dr. Kenneth Beer
- 4. Summer Safety Tips That Every Parent Needs To Know
- 5. Sugar and Your Immunity System
- 6. Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?
- 7. 5 Super Foods for Spring
- 8. The Hazards of Reusable Bags
- 9. How to Avoid Ingrown Hairs
- 10. Health Tip: Constantly Change Shoes
- 1. 4 Common Treatments for Epilepsy
- 2. What Does a Urogynecologist Do?
- 3. GERD Without Heartburn? It's Possible
- 4. Graston Technique: Can It Work on You?
- 5. Music Therapy Can Help Autism
- 6. 8 Ways to Fight MS-Related Fatigue
- 7. Can You Still Bleed After Menopause?
- 8. Be Your Own Health Care Advocate
- 9. Why Is Syphillis on the Rise?
- 10. Ideal Weight vs. Happy Weight
The material on the QualityHealth Web site is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment provided by a physician or other qualified health provider. See additional information.