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Understanding Abnormal Pap Tests Results
Pap Tests Show Cell Changes in Your Cervix

You're probably reading this because your health care provider told you that your recent Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear) showed cell changes in your cervix. Although it is quite common to feel uneasy about your Pap test results, it may comfort you to know that each year more than 3 million women receive similar news.

Many Cell Changes Are Not Cancer

The good news is that, almost always, women with cell changes do not have cancer of the cervix (also called cervical cancer). But it is important that you protect your health by getting the follow-up tests and care that your health care provider suggests. Having cell changes does not mean that you will get cancer of the cervix. In fact, when cell changes are found and treated early, almost all women can avoid getting cervical cancer.

Getting Your Questions Answered

So what is the next step? What do your results mean? Does this mean you need treatment and, if so, what kind? You will probably have other questions, or you might be concerned about the choices you may need to make. These reactions are normal. But understanding your Pap test results—and what to expect when the results are not normal—can help you make informed decisions and plan your next steps.

Common Changes in Cervical Cells

Cervical cells can go through many types of changes that are not cancer. These changes can be caused by:
• Inflammation (redness and swelling)
• An infection (bacterial, viral, or yeast)
• Growths, such as benign (noncancerous) polyps or cysts
• Changes in hormones that occur during pregnancy or menopause

Although many cervical cell changes are common, and not related to cancer, they sometimes make cervical cells look abnormal. Your health care provider may suggest that you repeat your Pap test or order other tests to be certain that the cell changes are not cancer.

Cell Changes Caused by HPV Are of Special Concern

Some cervical cell changes are caused by infection with a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). Most HPV infections eventually go away, but sometimes they do not. In infections that do not clear, the HPV-infected cells may become precancerous. If these precancerous cells are not detected and treated early, they can develop into invasive cancer of the cervix. An HPV test can detect the virus in cervical cells.

Other Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer

An ongoing or persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type is the most important cause of and risk factor for cervical cancer. However, studies have shown that other factors may act together with HPV to increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer. These factors include cigarette smoking, giving birth to multiple children, and use of birth control pills for five or more years.

For more resources to learn more, you can order free publications at, call 1-800-4-CANCER, or visit

On Behalf of the National Cancer Institute