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What are Atypical Cells?

By Mary Beth Swayne
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Atypical cells are cells that look different and function differently than they should. They are most often found in the cervix, breast, and thyroid, but may appear anywhere in the body, and are commonly caused by inflammation or infections. Most have a flat, sheet-like appearance and well-defined borders that separate them from normal cells. Though they are sometimes precancerous, many are benign, meaning that they will not spread or undergo additional changes. Once the underlying cause is treated, the cells usually go back to being normal.

Common Causes

An inflammation or infection can sometimes create non-cancerous atypical cells. For instance, yeast infections often cause atypical cervical cells in women. In many cases, the underlying cause is diagnosed and treated before a healthcare provider even sees any abnormal cells.

Atypical cells are also linked to certain diseases, including Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), so healthcare professionals often recommend that people with HPV have a colposcopy. This is a procedure that provides a magnified view of the cervix and allows for unusual tissue to be detected and biopsied for testing. Additionally, some cancers, including breast cancer and cervical cancer may initially appear as atypical cells if they are detected early enough.

Another medical condition that often causes this symptom is hyperplasia. This is a disorder in which large numbers of abnormal cells accumulate in an area. Since it's a risk factor for cancer, so people with hyperplasia have frequent screenings to be safe. Even if they do not develop into an invasive cancer, the cells can still mutate and cause a growth.

Diagnosis

It can be difficult to tell if atypical cells are precancerous or not at first glance, so medical professionals often recommend keeping an eye on the affected area over time to see if the tissue changes. Precancerous cells often grow and divide quickly, and mutate over the course of months, while benign ones usually don't change much. Healthcare providers also use other methods, such as testing for the presence of certain genes or proteins to check for precancerous tissue.

Microscopes must be used to detect irregular cells in human tissue samples, because they cannot be distinguished by the naked eye. Tissue samples are generally collected with non-invasive procedures, like Pap smears, throat swabs, and skin scrapings. If there are cells of an unusual size, shape, or color in the sample, then a biopsy is usually done to collect more tissue for further testing.

Treatments

Not all atypical cells require medical attention; this is often the case in cases where cells look unusual, but are not precancerous. In mild cases, the body may remove the cells on its own over a period of months. More heavily concentrated areas of irregular tissue generally requires treatment, which varies depending on the cause of the abnormality, its severity, and its location.

Cells near the surface of the body may be removed through biopsies, laser surgery, or cryosurgery, in which the affected area is frozen. Surgery is typically required in cases that occur in deeper tissue. Precancerous or cancerous growths may be treated with methods such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.

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Discussion Comments
By artlover — On Jan 30, 2011

@abundancer -- I know of a doctor who treats atypical squamous cells of the vaginal area with a topical cream made from wild yam, along with a tablet also made from wild yam. It would be worth looking into if you and your doctor felt it was a safe treatment.

By abundancer — On Jan 28, 2011

I think that the scariest atypical cells are atypical squamous cells, the ones that show up on Pap smears. What makes them so scary is that they can be caused by so many things, including an excess of some nutrients, like B3, or a deficiency in others like folic acid.

Does anyone know how those things are treated?

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