Pelvic exams and Pap smears (or pap test) are routine screenings used by gynecologists at your annual wellness visits. The Pap smear is used to retrieve a small sample of cervical cells to have them analyzed by the lab. There, a lab tech will look at the sample under the microscope and determine whether the sample appears “normal” or “abnormal.”
While there are many reasons to get “abnormal Pap smear” results, this screening protocol is largely used to catch precancerous or cancerous cervical cells before they become more serious and difficult to treat.
5 Common Reasons Your Pap Smear is Abnormal
First and foremost, do not panic if you get an abnormal Pap smear result. Most of the time, this is nothing to worry about and ranges from an erroneous reading to something as simple as starting your period. Your doctor will contact you immediately to schedule a follow up.
1. You forgot to observe the pre-Pap recommendations
To keep your cervical cell sample as pure and easy to evaluate as possible, you’ll be advised to avoid the following for 48-hours (two days) prior to your Pap test.
- Do not wear a tampon
- Refrain from having sexual intercourse
- Avoid using an lubrication or vaginal moisturizers
- Do not use powders, sprays, or an menstrual related products
- No vaginal suppositories, douches, creams or other medications
If you can tell you are going to start your period close to your Pap-test, you haven’t completed your period by the date it’s scheduled, etc., simply call your doctor to reschedule. Do all you can to get a normal result to minimize the worry that results from an abnormal screening.
2. There is a slightly irregular cell that is nothing to worry about
Not all abnormal cells are cancerous or even a sign of something else. Sometimes, like anything else, a stray “abnormal” cell is formed. You may get a result that says, ASC-US, which stands for “atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance.” You’ll still have to come in for another Pap test to be sure, but this usually means nothing is wrong or the original sample simply wasn’t clear enough to get a conclusive reading.
3. You have a yeast or bacterial infection
Inflammation caused by a yeast or bacterial infection can throw off a Pap smear result. Usually, either of these conditions would cause itching, burning, abnormal discharge, etc. However, low-grade versions may not be as noticeable. Some women get so used to the discomfort they don’t even realize there’s something wrong.
If this is the case, your doctor will provide treatment and call you back for another Pap test once the infection has cleared.
4. HPV and other STDs
HPV (human papillomavirus) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections and is also a common precursor for certain types of cervical cancer. Read, Who Needs the HPV Vaccine to learn more about how you can protect yourself and others from catching and transmitting this insidious infection.
Other sexually transmitted diseases, infections, and conditions also cause irregular Pap test results, including:
- Genital warts (herpes)
- Trichomoniasis (another common STI)
- Other infections
- General inflammation
Your physician will typically perform an HPV test, and may recommend a full STD panel, to begin ruling things out.
5. Cervical Dysplasia
While cervical dysplasia is not cancer, it does mean that cervical cells are beginning to mutate from normal to abnormal. Sometimes the body takes care of things on its own and everything goes back to healthy again. This is often the case for mild- or low-grade cervical dysplasia. In other cases, your doctor may determine that the cells need to be removed and biopsied for further analysis.
Treatment for Abnormal Pap Smear Results
The treatment or response to abnormal Pap smear screening is entirely depending on what the follow-up visit reveals.
In addition to HPV and possible STD/STI testing, your physician will perform a colposcopy. From your end, this will feel similar to a Pap test. Only this time, the physician will use the speculum to hold the vagina open along with a special tool called a colposcope.
S/he’ll use a cotton swab to apply a special solution all around the cervix, which helps irregular cells to reveal themselves under the colposcope’s light. The magnifying lens of the colposcope hyper-magnifies your cervix. With this close-up look, the gynecologist will determine if there are any irregular cells if not.
Click Here to read a more detailed description of the colposcopy process.
If so, they’ll be labeled as mild, moderate, or severe and treatment will proceed depending on the results. In some cases, we take a “watch and wait” approach, scheduling you for another Pap test in six to 12 months. In others, we may take a sample of the irregular cells right there and then to have them biopsied in the lab, after which we can determine the next steps.
Are you overdue for a Pap test or interested in learning more about abnormal results? Contact OB/GYN Associates of Spokane to schedule an appointment.