Hearing the words “abnormal Pap smear” can trigger a gut-wrenching fear—and for good reason. Cervical cancer was the leading cause of death among women for many years. Today, it ranks only 13th among women in the US, yet many women continue to have “abnormal” Pap test results. What’s going on?
“Abnormal” Pap test results are now fairly common, and almost always due to the widespread human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many types of this virus, and it is so common that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that “most women will be infected with it at some point during their lifetime,” and they may not even know it because there are typically no symptoms.
HPV is the leading cause of cervical dysplasia, a catch-all term for abnormal cells in the cervix. Cervical dysplasia is a primary risk factor for cervical cancer, but it does not mean that cancer will develop. Fortunately, cervical cancer is slow-growing, usually taking years to develop, and its precursor, cervical dysplasia, is easily detected as part of routine Pap tests.