Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Most women know to get regular pap smears, but many don't know what to make of the results when they come back abnormal. Getting back abnormal pap results can create a lot of anxiety around the fear of having cervical cancer. However, abnormal results usually do not indicate cancer. In fact, getting regular pap smears and appropriate follow-up for an abnormal result often prevents cervical cancer from developing. Knowing the causes of an abnormal pap smear and protecting yourself from the risk factors associated with this result can decrease your chances of cervical cancer.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, affecting about 75% of sexually active people. It is also the main cause of cervical cancer because it produces abnormal cell growth. If a woman has HPV on her cervix, she will have an abnormal pap smear. Most likely, the body's immune system will get rid of the infection before any abnormal cellular change occurs. To protect yourself from getting HPV, it is recommended to wear condoms, limit the number of sexual partners you have, delay sexual activity until age 18, practice monogamy, and get the HPV vaccine.
Vaginitis can cause an abnormal pap smear. Vaginitis includes yeast, bacteria and Trichomonas as the cause. These can be easily treated with a prescription medication.
Women who smoke cigarettes have an increased chance of having an abnormal pap smear. Smoking weakens the immune system. If a woman is exposed to HPV and smokes, her body is not able to fight off the HPV and her cervical cells are more likely to change to precancerous cells or cervical cancer.
Birth Control Pills
There is some evidence that using birth control pills longer than 5 years can increase a woman's chance of getting cervical cancer. Scientists don't understand why this is the case, but one theory is that women who use birth control pills are less likely to use condoms, thus putting themselves at higher risk for exposure to HPV. Keep in mind that using birth control pills can also decrease your risk of other cancers, so talk to your doctor if you are concerned.