Cervical Screening

Abnormal test results

About 1 in 20 women receive a cervical screening test result that shows some changes in the cells of the cervix an ‘abnormal result’ (NHS Cancer Screening Programme - Cervical screening 'The Facts' 2015).

Nearly all abnormal results show no more than small changes in the cells of the cervix. The name given to these changes is low or high grade dyskaryosis or dysplasia. Before 2011, women with borderline or low grade changes shown in their test result for the first time were asked to return for another cervical screening test in six months.  In many cases abnormal cell changes return to normal by themselves.

HPV testing

Some types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) can cause abnormal cervical cells. HPV is a very common infection of the cervix. Since April 2011, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme has been introducing a HPV triage where;

  • "If a sample taken during the cervical screening test shows low-grade or borderline cell abnormalities, the sample should automatically be tested for HPV.
  • If HPV is found in your sample, you should be referred for a colposcopy for further investigation and, if necessary, treatment. If no HPV is found, you'll carry on being routinely screened as normal.
  • If your sample shows more significant cell changes, you'll be referred for colposcopy without HPV testing (see 'The Colposcopy Examination').
  • In some areas, a test for HPV is the first test on the screening sample. In these cases, the sample is only checked for abnormal cells if HPV is found. If HPV isn’t found, you'll be offered a screening test again in three to five years (depending on your age).” NHS Choices 2015

For more information see  ‘Human papilloma virus (HPV)’ in the ‘Cervical abnormalities: CIN3 and CGIN’ section of this website. 

Receiving an abnormal test result can cause women considerable shock and anxiety, particularly when this happens for the first time, or happens again for a second time. Some of the women we talked to were frightened that they had cancer. It is extremely rare for an abnormality found at screening to be cancer nearly all abnormal results show no more than small changes in cervical cells but these act as an early warning sign that, over time cervical cancer may develop. Others were less worried because they had previously had abnormal results and regular check-ups or they had been given sufficient information to understand that their abnormal cells were not cancerous and could be treated or would revert to normal by themselves. One woman thought a mistake had been made with her test result because she thought she would feel ill if there was something wrong.

Some women received another abnormal test after several years of normal results.

Other women said they felt concerned when their test results indicated a change in the severity of their abnormal cervical cells.

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Waiting for a repeat test or for an appointment at a colposcopy clinic was a difficult time for many women. Some felt less anxious after reading information leaflets, or by talking to their GP or another medical professional, or speaking to family or friends who had experience of abnormal cells.

Feeling that they could trust the information they were being given by their GP or other medical professional was important in reducing the worry for some women. Several tried to think positively, to deal with one stage at a time and to recognise that abnormal cells could be treated.

For more information about what an abnormal test result means see the NHS Cervical Screening Programme’s leaflet What your abnormal result means.

Last reviewed October 2015.

Last updated October 2015.

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