Abnormal Pap test results can be caused by infection, which leads to cell changes in the transformation zone of the cervix. Pap test results often return to normal when the cells have returned to healthy growth or after an infection has been treated or has resolved on its own.
In some cases, untreated cervical cell changes that cause abnormal Pap tests may progress to precancerous or cancerous stages. Certain high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) have been linked to the development of cervical cancer. But changes in cervical cells usually progress slowly and take many years to become cancer cells. Treatment can remove or destroy these cells before they become cancerous.
The American Cancer Society has reported the following statistics.1
- In women ages 13 to 21, minor cervical cell changes go away on their own about 90% of the time.
- In women older than 21, minor cervical cell changes go away on their own about 50% to 80% of the time.
Regular Pap test screening can detect cervical cell changes early.
- Minor cell changes often go away without treatment.
- Early detection of precancerous cell changes or cervical cancer usually makes a complete cure possible.
- If a high-risk type of HPV is diagnosed, more frequent Pap tests or other testing (such as colposcopy or cervical biopsy) may be needed for further evaluation.
Cervical polyps are unrelated to cervical cancer, but may be found and removed at the time of a pelvic exam and Pap test.