What is an Abnormal Pap Smear?

By Michael Keelan, M.D.
Ocean Medical Center

A Pap smear is a simple procedure that tests the cells of the cervix, which is the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina. This test can detect pre-cancerous changes in the cells of your cervix before they become cancer. They can also detect cervical cancer in its early stages, when it can be treated most easily.
"Cervical health is directly related to HPV, which causes cervical cancer. Getting regular Pap smears gives you a better chance of preventing cancer," says ob/gyn Michael Keelan, M.D.
If your doctor tells you your Pap smear results are abnormal, it does not necessarily mean you have cancer. Abnormal cells may indicate an infection or another cause, or they may signal pre-cancerous changes in your cells.

If you have an abnormal Pap smear, your doctor will run follow-up tests to determine the cause. These next steps will take into consideration things such as your age, risk factors, and pregnancy. According to Dr. Keelan, an annual Pap test is routinely done for women under 30 years old.

If it is abnormal, another test is done to check for HPV. Once women are over 30 years old, their Pap test is done each year, and every third year a HPV screening is automatically done during the same visit.

"Take time to talk to your doctor about what the results mean and the recommended next steps," says Dr. Keelan. For some women, the next step is to repeat the Pap test a few months later, giving your body time for the changes to go away all on their own. Other times you may need to have another Pap test every six months until you have two normal results, then resume a routine schedule.
Your doctor may decide that other follow-up testing will be beneficial, such as biopsy to more accurately evaluate the cells.
It is important to keep in mind that many women with some types of abnormal Pap test results do not need treatment, thus reinforcing the importance of regular Pap tests.
If treatment is needed, identifying it early can help prevent cancer before it develops.