Doctors at NYU Langone recommend regular Pap testing—a screening test for cervical cancer—for women 21 to 65 years old. The test is performed during a pelvic exam. It allows doctors to determine if there are changes in the cells on the cervix, the cylinder of tissue that connects the uterus to the vagina.
An abnormal growth of cervical cells is called cervical dysplasia, which is often caused by an infection called human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection. Cervical dysplasia is considered to be a precancerous condition, meaning it may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.
Of the 150 strains of HPV, 40 affect the genital area. Different strains are characterized as putting a woman at low risk or high risk of developing cancer. Most HPV strains don’t pose a serious risk to health, and most abnormal Pap test results do not indicate cancer.
The irregular cells identified by Pap test results are classified as low grade or high grade. Low grade changes mean there are mild changes to the cells, and high grade changes indicate moderate to severe changes. These results help your doctor determine if further testing is needed.
Many low grade cervical cells identified in Pap test results are caused by HPV. Strains of this infection can put a woman at low risk or high risk of developing cancer. Most strains associated with a low risk of developing cancer go away or become undetectable within two years after the body builds immunity to the virus. Some of these can cause genital warts, a contagious condition that is spread through sexual contact.
Your doctor determines if further testing or treatments are necessary.
High grade cervical cells identified by Pap test results can indicate the presence of precancerous cervical dysplasia—which can be caused by strains of HPV that are associated with a high risk of developing cancer—or, sometimes, cervical cancer itself. There are at least 12 strains of HPV associated with a high risk of developing cancer, but only two—types 16 and 18—cause most HPV-related cancers. These conditions require treatment.
If a Pap test identifies high grade cervical cells, your doctor recommends additional tests and procedures in order to make a diagnosis.