If you visit your OB/GYN for a routine check-up, you probably have had a Pap smear at some point. A Pap smear, or Pap test, is a procedure done to screen women for certain infections and cervical cancer. During this procedure, your OB/GYN will collect a sample of cells from your cervix to inspect for any abnormal growth.
Pap smears can be uncomfortable, but they are crucial for early detection of cervical cancer. It is recommended that women between the ages of 21 to 65 have a Pap smear every three to five years. If your Pap test is normal, that means your cells are healthy, but what does it mean to have an abnormal Pap test?
What is an Abnormal Pap Smear?
Cervical cells that are healthy appear thin and flat, while abnormal cells are shaped differently. HPV (human papillomavirus) is most often the cause for changes in cells. Being told you have an abnormal Pap test can be troubling at first, but they are quite common. Only 1% of abnormal tests ever come back positive for cancer.
What Causes Abnormal Pap Smears?
Though HPV may be the leading cause of abnormal Pap smears, it’s not a definite indicator of cancer. There are over 100 different strains of HPV, but only types 16 and 18 are cancerous. More than 90% of HPV infections are low-risk, meaning they will go away on their own or become undetectable within two years-time once the body builds immunity.
Other types of infections, such as yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, can also cause results to come back abnormal. Women who are entering into menopause may experience abnormal Pap smears. As the body stops producing estrogen, the cervical cells begin to change and in some cases may mimic precancerous conditions.
My Pap smear came back Abnormal. Now What?
When Pap smear results come back abnormal, your doctor will schedule a follow up appointment for further evaluation. They may request a second Pap smear, or increase the frequency of your Pap smears from every other year to every 12 months. They may also perform a colposcopy exam, where your doctor uses a thin tool fitted with a light and magnifying lens to take a closer look at your cervix.
If your doctor finds anything that looks abnormal, they will collect a sample (biopsy) to send to a lab for further testing. If abnormal tissue is confirmed, your doctor will recommend either a cervical conization or LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) to remove the precancerous cells. LEEP procedures can be done right in your OB/GYN’s office under local anesthesia, whereas cervical conization is usually performed in a hospital under general anesthesia.
Cramping and discomfort are normal following these procedures, as is slight bleeding, spotting, and dark colored discharge. If you notice any bleeding, use a pad instead of a tampon, and take ibuprofen as needed for pain management. Precancerous growths that are detected by Pap smears are very treatable, so it’s important to maintain routine visit with your OB/GYN.
Get Regular Screening
Most of the time, cervical cancer does not present any symptoms until the later stages when it has advanced to other parts of the body. Getting screened regularly, quitting smoking, and getting the HPV vaccine are all ways to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.
To schedule an exam with one of our board-certified OB/GYNs, or if you are interested in becoming a new patient, call (716) 923-7152 today.