Most women who have a cervical screening test have a normal result.
Some women’s tests will show that they have changes in the cells of their cervix. This is known as an abnormal result. This means the laboratory has found some cell changes that may need further investigation.
Often the changes may be due to inflammation or infection. Sometimes certain medicines, such as hormonal therapies for gynaecological conditions or breast cancer, can cause changes in the cervix. For this reason, it’s important to let the person carrying out the screening know about any medicines you’re taking.
Your screening report usually refers to the cell changes as borderline, mild, moderate or severe. These cell changes may also be called dyskaryosis.
Mild cell changes (mild or low-grade dyskaryosis).
Moderate cell changes (moderate or high-grade dyskaryosis).
Severe cell changes (severe or high-grade dyskaryosis).
Cell changes in the cervix are often associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is transmitted by sexual intercourse. HPV is a very common virus; there are over 100 types. Only some types of the virus, known as high-risk types, are associated with changes in the cervical cells that may go on to develop into cancer.
Testing of cervical screening samples for high-risk types of HPV is now being introduced in some areas of the country. If you live in an area where it has been introduced, your cervical screening sample may be tested to see if it contains a high-risk type of HPV. This is explained in more detail below.
Borderline or mild cell changes (low-grade dyskaryosis)
Back to top
Most abnormal results from screening tests show only very minor changes. The majority of these changes go back to normal on their own.
If your screening test shows that you have borderline or mild cell changes, what happens next depends on whether HPV testing is available in the area where you live. If HPV testing is available, you’ll be given more information about this along with your screening invitation.
If HPV testing isn’t available in the area where you live
Your GP may arrange for you to be referred for a colposcopy, or to have a second screening test in six months time - this will allow the cell changes to go back to normal on their own. If your second screening test shows that the cells have gone back to normal, you’ll be asked to have two further screening tests at six-monthly intervals. If the cells remain normal, you’ll be called again for screening in three or five years’ time (depending on your age) to check that the cells are still normal.
If your second screening test shows abnormal cells, your GP or practice nurse will arrange for you to have a colposcopy, which is a more detailed examination of the cervix.
If HPV testing is available in the area where you live
Your screening sample will be tested for HPV. If high-risk HPV isn’t found in your sample, you won’t need any further tests. This is because the cell changes are likely to go back to normal on their own. You’ll be called again for screening in three or five years’ time (depending on your age).
If your sample is found to contain a high-risk type of HPV, you’ll be referred for a colposcopy.
If you smoke, mild cell changes are less likely to go back to normal. If you’d like to give up smoking, your GP will be able to give you helpful advice. We also have a section on giving up smoking.
Moderate or severe cell changes (high-grade dyskaryosis)
Back to top
A small number of women will have moderate or severe cell changes. If you have these cell changes, your GP or practice nurse will suggest that you have a colposcopy within a few weeks.
A colpsocopy involves a detailed examination of your cervix using a colposcope. It helps confirm whether you have cervical intra-epitheial neoplasia (CIN) and how severe it is. CIN is when changes occur in the surface (squamous) cells of the cervix.
CIN is graded 1, 2 or 3 depending on how deep the cell changes go into the cervix.
Cervical glandular intra-epithelial neoplasia (CGIN)
Back to top
Sometimes a screening test may find changes in the columnar or glandular cells that line the cervical canal. CGIN stands for cervical glandular intra-epithelial neoplasia. If left untreated, these changes may develop into a type of cancer known as adenocarcinoma. It’s much less common for changes to occur in these cells.
A cervical screening test can very occasionally detect early cervical cancer, but most women with an abnormal test result have early cell changes and not cancer.
Very few women with an abnormal test result have cancer of the cervix.
If the result of your cervical screening test shows there are changes in the cells of the cervix, you should have the chance to discuss this with your GP or practice nurse. You can also discuss it with our cancer support specialists.