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 with your healthcare provider
Be sure to discuss your results with your healthcare 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 year, giving your cervix time to repair itself. Or you may be scheduled for a colposcopy exam that allows your healthcare provider to get a closer look at your cervix. Your healthcare provider may also take a biopsy of your cervix, which is sent to a lab for further testing. 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? 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 healthcare provider see the cervix.
A small brush, spatula, 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 healthcare provider will contact you with the results.