Do You Know What Your Pap Smear Results Mean?

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Every year over 4 million women have pap smears that come back with abnormal results. What does this mean?

An abnormal pap smear result does not necessarily indicate the presence of cancer. It does, however, mean that you have had cell changes within your cervix and could be at risk for cervical cancer. An abnormal pap smear result can be caused by the presence of an infection, irritation or the human papaloma virus (HPV). However, in some cases, an abnormal pap result is due to the presence of precancerous cells.

If precancerous cells are caught early and taken seriously, the disease is often curable. Through additional testing your doctor will determine the severity of the results and begin the proper course of treatment. While cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, it is also one of the most deadly if not caught early and treated.

As Dr. Clarissa Beiting M.D., Lexington Clinic gynecologist explains, "Staying up to date on your pap smear is essential. Determining small changes is critical to catching cervical cancer early, which leads to more successful treatment." 

Cervical cancer is a slow growing cancer that takes years to develop from precancerous cells into cervical cancer. Over 12,000 women progressed into invasive cervical cancer in 2010 alone, and over 4,000 of these cases were fatal. Most women that progress into the later stages of cervical cancer have missed several pap smears, and therefore were unaware of cell changes. This is why it is vital to get your regular pap smear test. While the direct cause of cervical cancer is unknown, there are some prominent risk factors that significantly increase the chances of developing cervical cancer. These causes include the HPV virus, multiple sexual partners and a weakened immune system.

After getting your results, it is crucial to learn what your results mean and what actions to take. There are three possible pap smear results. If the result is normal you are healthy. On occasion the swab the doctor takes will yield an insufficient result. This does not indicate any health issues and simply means the test did not have enough cells on the swab and must be redone in order to complete the pap smear. The last possible result is abnormal. There are four different levels of cell changes that can lead to an abnormal result.


  • Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance - This result is the most common type of change that can occur in an abnormal pap smear reading. The result indicates the presence of cervical changes, often caused by a minor infection, irritation or HPV. Often, whatever is causing the abnormal reading will resolve on its own. Usually, the doctor will want a follow-up exam, and if there is a possibility of precancerous cells, a colposcopy (an examination of the cervix with a small lighted microscope) may be ordered.

  • Low-Grade Cervical Changes - A low-grade reading means there are some early changes in the size and shape of the cells often associated with the presence of HPV. These cells are not cancerous but could possibly become cancerous if not treated. If you receive this result, the doctor will probably perform a colposcopy or HPV test.
  • High-Grade Cervical Changes - High-grade changes indicate a significant change in the cells, which usually means they are precancerous. At this stage the cells are likely to lead to cervical cancer and need immediate attention. Your doctor will perform a colposcopy to determine your risk for cervical cancer.

  • Cervical Cancer - If your pap smear results indicate extremely abnormal cells, then you have cancer in your vagina, cervix or uterus, and your doctor will perform additional testing and begin treatment immediately.

If you have any questions about any of these terms, ask your doctor to explain them further. By understanding what your abnormal reading means and what actions you should take, you will be better able to monitor your health and reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.  

For more information about cervical cancer or to schedule an appointment, call 859-258-4DOC (4362) or visit

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