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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 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 progress 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, when treatment is most effective.

Talk to your health care provider

Be sure to discuss your results with your health care 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 few months. Or, you may be scheduled for an exam so your health care provider can get a closer look at your cervix. In either case, be sure to keep your follow-up visits. They are one of your best safeguards against future problems.

Understanding your risk

Some lifestyle choices can increase your risk of abnormal cell changes. Did you start having sex at a young age? Have you had many sexual partners? Have you had sex without using a latex condom? Do you smoke? 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 HPV, further testing may be needed.


The Pap test

During the test:

  • An instrument called a speculum is inserted into the vagina to hold it open. This lets your health care provider see the cervix.

  • A small brush 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 studied for changes. Your health care provider will contact you with the results.


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