My Pap test came back abnormal. Should I be worried?

May 11, 2023 | by Matthew Zuckerman, D.O.

There is nothing worse than the fear of the unknown. You did the right thing by visiting your doctor for your Pap smear, but now your doctor has called to tell you that your results came back abnormal. Your heart immediately drops … should you be worried?

An abnormal Papanicolaou test, or Pap smear, can mean a number of different things. Sometimes a Pap test detects abnormal cells that could be precancerous, but more commonly, it’s a vaginal or cervical infection or virus that causes abnormal cells, like the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV infects nearly everyone, and anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV. The virus is so common, that up to 80 percent of patients will be exposed to HPV over their sexual lifetime.

Someone can have an HPV infection even if they have no symptoms and their only sexual contact with an HPV-infection person happened years ago. Most of the time, HPV goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems.

However, when HPV remains in a woman’s cervical cells and it is not treated, it can lead to cervical cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends boys and girls receive an HPV vaccine as part of their routine immunizations at age 11 or 12, but the vaccine can be administered as early as age 9. Here’s more on the benefits of the vaccine.

If you have an abnormal Pap test result, your doctor will make recommendations based on your age and the degree of abnormality. Some results simply require testing again in 1-3 years, versus performing more additional testing such as a colposcopy

Pap tests are screening tools. Although they are highly effective, they are not always accurate. Sometimes a patient can be told that she has abnormal cells when they are actually normal (a false-positive result), or she can be told her cells are normal when there is abnormality that was not detected (a false-negative result.)

You can reduce your chance of getting cervical cancer by:

  • Getting the HPV vaccine
  • Testing for HPV. The current ASCCP guidelines recommend women aged 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years. Beginning at age 30, women should have a Pap test every 3- 5 years, continuing to age 65. 
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Using condoms
  • Limiting sexual partners 

If you have questions about the benefits of a Pap smear or your results, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can answer any questions you have and explain your results if you don’t understand.  

Learn more about women's health services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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