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Making sense of Pap results

Did your Pap test come back with ABNORMAL results? Take heart: Most abnormal results don’t signal cancer.

During a Pap test, healthcare providers look for changes in cells in the cervix—the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina—by taking a swab of cells from the area and sending them to a lab to be analyzed. Abnormal cells can be a cause for concern because they could develop into cancer down the road.

Experts recommend that all women start Pap testing by age 21; ask your doctor how often you should get tested.

Making sense of the results

Talk with your healthcare provider and ask him or her to explain your results. The most common cause of abnormal results is human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain types of HPV have been linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina, years after exposure, while others have been linked to genital warts. The virus is common and is passed through sexual contact. In most women, HPV goes away on its own. In those cases where it doesn’t go away quickly, precancerous changes could be in the works.

Your provider may use any one of several tests to make a definitive diagnosis. These include a repeat Pap test, an HPV test, colposcopy (a special scope is used to look at the cells in the vagina and cervix in detail), endocervical curettage (a sample of cells is taken from the endocervical canal) and biopsy (your provider takes a small sample of cervical tissue to be analyzed).


Some cervical changes disappear and may only involve follow-up testing. Others may require treatment, which either removes or destroys the abnormal areas. All treatments could affect your ability to become pregnant, so discuss the risks with your healthcare provider.