As a woman, you have a unique anatomy that calls for specialized care, including regular exams that evaluate your reproductive system, menstrual cycle, and breast health. One of the routine parts of a woman’s health exam is a Pap smear, which tests the cells in your cervix.
Dr. Farah Khan at Millennium Park Medical Associates in The Loop and Lakeview communities of Chicago, Illinois, performs comprehensive women’s health exams for our female patients, including Pap smears. Occasionally, the results come back abnormal, which can be alarming if you don’t know what that means. Here, Dr. Khan explains what your Pap smear results mean and what happens next.
What is a Pap smear?
A Papanicolaou test — Pap smear for short — is simply a procedure that tests the cells of your cervical tissue. To collect those sample cells, Dr. Khan inserts a speculum into your vagina to widen it, then inserts a narrow brush that gathers a few cells so they can be examined under a microscope. This lets us know if the cells are normal or if they’ve undergone changes.
Starting at the age of 21, Dr. Khan recommends that all her female patients get a Pap smear every three years as part of their regular gynecological care. The procedure is quick and painless.
Understanding your Pap smear results
Most of the time, Pap smear results come back normal, but occasionally they indicate some changes in your cervical cells. Often, this change is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can lead to cancer. In fact, 9 out of every 10 women who have cervical cancer can blame HPV. This is the stat that makes many women panic when they learn about abnormal Pap smear results.
However, an abnormal Pap smear does NOT mean you have cancer. Changed cells can also mean you have a yeast or bacterial infection, or simply that your body is getting older and your cells are following suit.
It may also mean that you have a different type of STD, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. Dr. Khan exams you thoroughly to determine what’s causing the cells to change. If you have an STD other than HPV, you may notice symptoms, such as vaginal discharge that smells or looks different than normal. You may also have pain, burning, or itching, or notice sores, warts, or rashes.
HPV, on the other hand, doesn’t usually cause symptoms, so the only way to know you have it is by getting a Pap smear. The bottom line is that several issues may cause changes in your cervical cells, and depending on their severity, they may need to be monitored or removed.
Who’s at risk for abnormal Pap smears?
You can have HPV without realizing it because the virus can live within you for years incognito. You can increase or decrease your risk for an abnormal Pap smear depending on your sexual behavior. If you have sex without using a condom, have more than one sexual partner, or your sexual partner has other sexual partners, your chance of contracting HPV goes up.
If your immune system is compromised or you’re a smoker, you also have a greater risk of changing cervical cells.
What happens next?
An abnormal Pap smear is only an indicator that we need to investigate the situation further. It is NOT a diagnosis of any disease or condition. If your Pap smear comes back with abnormal results, Dr. Khan runs additional tests, which may include:
- HPV test (another cervical cell examination)
- Colposcopy (closer look at your vagina and cervix)
- More frequent Pap smears
If you have mild cell changes, Dr. Khan typically recommends more frequent Pap smears so she can keep an eye on them. If the changes are moderate or severe, she may recommend treatment to remove them to prevent or stop cancer.
If you’re due for a Pap smear, make an appointment with Dr. Khan today by calling either of our two Chicago offices or booking a visit online today. It’s quick and easy and could save your life.