What Causes a Pap Smear to be Abnormal?

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A pap smear is a test that can help detect a variety of women’s health issues including cervical cancer. Women should begin getting annual pap smears once they become sexually active or at eighteen years old if they have a family history female reproductive disorders or female reproductive cancers. If a woman is not sexually active and has no family history or personal history of female reproductive disorders or cancers she does not need to begin getting annual pap smears until twenty-one years of age. There are several reasons for abnormal pap smear results and though many are not serious all need to be checked out.

How is this Test Performed?

During a pap smear the patient will lie back on an examination table and place their feet in the stirrups. The doctor will then take a thin, small wand made of plastic that looks like a large Q-tip and gently swipe some cervical cells. Most women do not feel pain, but some may experience temporary discomfort or cramping during the test. A pap smear takes less than a minute to perform.


A vaginal or cervical infection can be a reason for abnormal pap smear results. Any type of infection, including an HPV infection can cause an abnormal test result. Most cases can be easily treated with antibiotics and a follow-up appointment with the patient’s doctor. The follow-up appointment is important because during this exam the doctor will be checking to make sure that the abnormal cells have not become precancerous or cancerous cells.

False Positive

If this test is determined to be a false positive it means that the lab technician who looked at the cells under the microscope after the pap smear couldn’t conclude whether there was an issue or not and wanted to be on the safe side. This is a very common reason for this test to come back abnormal. When this occurs a second pap smear will be ordered to look for abnormal cells.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is often diagnosed through pap smears. However, not all abnormal pap smear results indicate cervical cancer. If this test shows that cancerous cells are present in the cervix the doctor will order additional tests, such as a biopsy or a dilation and curettage, to confirm whether the patient does indeed have cervical cancer.


Mork., R. (2009). Common Reasons for an Abnormal Pap Smear. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from Website: https://www.life123.com/health/womens-health/abnormal-pap-smear/common-reasons-for-abnormal-pap-smear.shtml#STS=g026m4fx.17ut