Abnormal Pap Smears | HPV
Cervical cancer used to be the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths among women – until regular Pap smears testing became a central component of women’s annual well-woman exams. Pap smears can identify precancerous cells in the cervix, so that these cells can be removed before it turns into cancer.
Women of all ages are at risk of developing cervical cancer. When cervical cancer is identified early, it is entirely treatable, and patients can often expect an excellent prognosis. In other words, the Pap smear you choose to undergo today may be one of the most effective preventive healthcare measures you can take for your long-term health.
What Does an Abnormal Pap Smear Mean?
Your Pap smear may come back as normal, abnormal, or unclear. When the results of a Pap smear come back as abnormal, it simply means the lab identified some cells that vary from typical findings.
It’s important to know that an abnormal Pap smear doesn’t necessarily indicate you have cervical cancer. Pap smears are constructed to detect any changes within cervical cells, and abnormal results may indicate other conditions such as inflammation, hyperkeratosis, or atypical squamous or glandular cells (also known as cervical dysplasia, which only rarely develops into cervical cancer). False positives may also occur with Pap smears.
Your OB-GYN doctor will be better able to identify what next steps may be necessary to narrow down the possible cause of your abnormal Pap smear.
The HPV Connection
The vast majority of abnormal Pap smear results are due to a human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. HPV infections are spread through skin-to-skin contact (not the exchange of bodily fluids), making the infection highly transmissible. In fact, HPV infections are the most common type of sexually transmitted disease in the nation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that nearly everyone will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, and each falls into either a “high-risk” or “low-risk” category of infection. In many of these cases, you will experience no symptoms, your body will clear the infection on its own, and the abnormal cervical cells will go away before your next Pap smear.
- Low-Risk HPV Infections. These types of HPV infections are treatable and do NOT lead to cervical cancer. It includes HPV 6 and 11, both of which are associated with genital warts.
- High-Risk HPV Infections. This is the category of HPV infections that can cause cellular changes in the cervix and may ultimately lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. It includes HPV 16 and 18, both of which account for nearly all cases of cervical cancer.
Screening for HPV may be considered a type of cervical cancer screening, along with routine Pap smears, because of the close relationship between the two. Your OB-GYN may recommend an HPV test and/or a regular Pap smear, depending on your sexual history, age, and any concerns you may have. The HPV test is conducted the same way a Pap smear is: by gently scraping a tissue sample from the cervix during a pelvic exam. The result will be either negative or positive. If positive, it should identify whether the HPV infection falls within the high-risk or low-risk category.
The HPV vaccine can protect you against infection by HPV that causes cervical cancer as well as the low-risk HPV infections associated with genital warts. The vaccine is most effective when given to boys and girls at the age of 11 or 12 years old and before the person has become sexually active. While the HPV vaccine is available for both genders, HPV testing is so far only available for women. Ask your doctor if the HPV vaccine is right for you.
What to Expect After an Abnormal Pap Smear
In some cases of unclear or abnormal test results, a repeat Pap smear may be recommended.
In other cases, after abnormal cells are discovered, your provider may recommend a colposcopy. This allows your doctor to more closely examine the cervix and take a biopsy of abnormal tissue.
Any necessary treatment will be performed after further examination. Depending on what is found, this may include cryosurgery, electrocauterization, or the LEEP procedure to remove the abnormal growth. Your Women’s HealthFirst provider will develop a customized treatment plan based on your specific circumstances.
Abnormal Pap Smear? Don’t Panic – Visit Your Women’s HealthFirst OB-GYN
In most cases, an abnormal Pap smear is nothing to worry about. For most women, it is a sign of an infection that the body will naturally clear before the next exam. However, it’s important to have any abnormal Pap smear findings reviewed by a trusted OB-GYN professional who can determine the best next steps for you.
That’s where the gynecology team at Women’s HealthFirst in northwest suburban Chicago comes in. Our gynecological specialists can provide you the information, guidance, and support you need when faced with findings no one wants to hear – including abnormal Pap smear results.
To find out more, call Women’s HealthFirst at (847) 808-8884 or request an appointment now. Choose the nearest of our five locations for the utmost in convenience. For our established patients, contact your Women’s HealthFirst provider directly or visit the online patient portal to message your care team, ask questions, or more.