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What are the Reasons for an Abnormal PAP Smear?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Infections caused by the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, commonly result in abnormal pap smears. Diseases such as herpes and trichomoniasis can also have this effect. Other reasons include common habits such as sexual intercourse and using tampons.

One of the most common reasons for an abnormal pap smear is an HPV infection. This virus, which can be spread by contact, infects many women at some point in their lives. A lot of women are not even aware that they have the virus because, in most cases, it is contracted, causes no symptoms, and eventually disappears on its own. The virus can affect a pap smear, however, because it can cause changes to a woman’s cervical cells. In some cases, the abnormal cells are treated, but this is not always necessary.

Certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can also cause an abnormal pap smear. One example is trichomoniasis, which can cause abnormal halo-like formations within the cervical cells. Unlike some other STDs, trichomoniasis tends to provide indications that a person is infected. These include a frothy, itchy discharge that can be yellowish or grayish-green and pain during urination. Such infections are common and treatable.

Another of the STDs that can cause an abnormal pap smear is herpes. This virus has no known cure. It stays in the body, where it lies dormant sometimes but tends to travel to the surface of the skin periodically. When this happens, blisters usually appear, but they disappear after a short time. Although a person with herpes does not always have symptoms, the existence of the virus in the body can result in cell changes that can be detected by a pap smear.

There are other types of infections that can also lead to an abnormal pap smear. A yeast infection, for example, is not an STD. Women may suffer from such infections even if they have never had sex. This is also the case with other bacterial infections. Yet these can affect the results of an examination.

In some cases, the problem is not the result of a condition. Normal habits can be reasons for an abnormal pap smear. One good example is sexual intercourse. Women are often advised to abstain from sex prior to having their pap smears performed because the results can be affected. Another common habit that can affect the results is using tampons.

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Discussion Comments

By dfoster85 — On Dec 23, 2011

@ElizaBennett - I don't necessarily disagree with you about postponing that postpartum pap smear test, but women who have had an abnormal result in the past or who know they have HPV might feel more comfortable going ahead and getting it done - something to discuss with your provider.

I didn't realize that using tampons could cause an abnormal result! But I've heard it's better not to go during your period anyway, as *that* can cause a weird result, so I guess you shouldn't be using tampons anyway! My doctor also said no douching or even taking a bath for 24 hours before - I don't know how typical that advice is. He may be over-cautious, or maybe they all say that.

I try to schedule my exams for right in the middle of my menstrual cycle. At that time, your cervix is softer and better lubricated, so the exam is not as uncomfortable.

By ElizaBennett — On Dec 22, 2011

Recent childbirth can also can an abnormal result. Pap tests are routinely done at 6 week postpartum checkups. The problem with that is that your body may not have recovered 100% from childbirth and your Pap smear results might show inflammation. This doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong - it just means you had a baby!

So personally, I decline the Pap at the 6 week checkup. I think part of the reason they like to do one during pregnancy and another after you've had the baby is just that you're there in the office! You can come back in a few months and have a Pap test if you are due for one.

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