Pap smears have been instrumental in decreasing the number of cases of cervical cancer in the United States by detecting a precancerous condition called dysplasia. Dysplasia is an alteration in the skin of the cervix, vagina, vulva or anus that has the potential to progress to cancer if left untreated.
Dysplasia usually doesn't cause any symptoms, but it may be associated with abnormal bleeding or spotting.
Pap smears are an excellent way to detect dysplasia of the cervix, which is the most common site for dysplasia in women. The test is the most effective form of cancer prevention available to women. It has recently been adapted as a screening test for the anus, to detect anal dysplasias and cancer.
Once dysplasia has been detected on a pap smear, the genital area should be examined under magnification — a procedure known as colposcopy — to identify exactly where the dysplasia is located, followed by removal of the dysplasia if indicated. Anoscopy is using a scope to inspect the anus and lower rectum.
Sometimes, pap smears can be abnormal when there are no pre-cancerous conditions present. Some common types of abnormal pap smears are:
There are a number of ways to remove the abnormal cells created by dysplasia. They include:
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.