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Women's Health

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Abnormal Pap Test - Topic Overview

What is an abnormal Pap test?

When your doctor says that your Pap test, or Pap smear, was abnormal, it means that the test found some cells on your cervix camera.gif that do not look normal.

A Pap test may be done as part of a woman's routine physical exam, because it's the best way to prevent cervical cancer. But having an abnormal test result doesn't mean you have cancer. In fact, the chances that you have cancer are very small.

What causes an abnormal Pap test?

Most of the time, the abnormal cell changes are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection.

Usually these cell changes go away on their own. But certain types of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer. That's why regular Pap tests are so important.

Sometimes the changed cells are due to other types of infection, such as those caused by bacteria or yeast. These infections can be treated.

In women who have been through menopause, a Pap test may find cell changes that are just the result of getting older.

What increases your risk for an abnormal Pap test?

Certain sexual behaviors, like having sex without condoms and having more than one sex partner (or having a sex partner who has other partners), can increase your risk for getting HPV. And HPV raises your risk for having an abnormal pap test.

HPV can stay in your body for many years without your knowing it. So even if you now have just one partner and practice safer sex, you could still have an abnormal Pap test if you were exposed to HPV in the past.

Smoking or having an impaired immune system also raises your chances of having cell changes in your cervix.

Do abnormal cell changes cause symptoms?

The cell changes themselves don't cause symptoms. HPV, which causes most abnormal Pap tests, usually doesn't cause symptoms either.

If a different sexually transmitted infection is the cause of your abnormal test, you may have symptoms such as:

  • A discharge from the vagina that isn't normal for you, such as a change in the amount, color, odor, or texture.
  • Pain, burning, or itching in your pelvic or genital area when you urinate or have sex.
  • Sores, lumps, blisters, rashes, or warts on or around your genitals.
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