Understanding your test results

If your cervical screening result is abnormal, this does not mean you have cancer. You may need another screening test or a test called a colposcopy that checks the abnormal cells in the cervix in more detail.

Your test results might also show HPV. This is a common virus that most people are affected by at some point. Usually the body’s immune system gets rid of it and the virus does not cause damage. But if your test shows HPV, there is a chance the abnormal cells will not improve naturally. You will have a colposcopy to find out more.

Sometimes cervical screening finds other abnormal changes. This is not common but includes changes called cervical glandular intra-epithelial neoplasia (CGIN) and, rarely, early cervical cancer.

It can be stressful waiting for cervical screening results. It may help to talk about your worries with a friend or family member.

Most people who have an abnormal test result will not develop cervical cancer. Screening finds the small number of people who need treatment to prevent cancer.

Possible test results

Your cervical screening test may show the following:

  • Normal cells – Your sample showed no changes to the cells in the cervix. This is also called a negative result. You will be asked to come for your regular screening again in three years (or five years if you are over 50).
  • The result was unclear – This may mean there were not enough cells in the sample. Or if you had your period or an infection, these may have affected the result. You will be asked to have the test again.
  • Abnormal cells – Your sample showed some type of change to the cells. Depending on the type of change you might need further tests to find out if these need treatment.


Abnormal test results

If your cervical screening test shows abnormal cells, this does not mean you have cancer. But it can still be a shock if you are told you need more tests. You should have the chance to talk about your results with your GP or practice nurse. You can also call our cancer support specialists for free on 0808 808 00 00.

People often feel anxious waiting for the next appointment and more test results. This can be the hardest part of having cervical screening. It may help to remember that the aim is to stop cancer before it develops. Treating a small area of abnormal cells is usually a simple and effective way to do this.


Slightly abnormal or mild changes

Most abnormal results from the cervical screening test show only very minor or slight changes. This is also called borderline changes (low-grade dyskaryosis).

If you get a slightly abnormal result, what happens next depends on where you live.

If you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland

Your sample of cells will be tested for the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a common virus that causes the abnormal changes that are most likely to develop into cervical cancer.

If your sample does not show HPV, the changes are likely to go back to normal on their own. You will be asked to come for your regular screening again in three years (or five years if you are over 50).

If your sample shows HPV, there is a chance the cells will not improve. Your GP will arrange for you to have a test called a colposcopy to look at the cervix in more detail.

If you live in Scotland

Slightly abnormal changes often improve naturally over time. You may be asked to have another cervical screening test in a few months to check the cells have gone back to normal. Or your GP may arrange for you to have a test called a colposcopy to look at the cervix in more detail.

From 2019 or 2020, your sample of cells will be tested for HPV instead.

If you smoke

If you smoke, this type of mild change is less likely to go back to normal. If you want to give up smoking, your GP can give you advice. We also have more information about giving up smoking.


Very abnormal (moderate or severe) changes

Sometimes the cervical screening test finds very abnormal cell changes. This is also called high-grade dyskaryosis. If you have this type of change, your GP will arrange for you to have a test called a colposcopy to look at the cervix in more detail.


HPV

The human papilloma viruses (HPVs) are a group of common infections. Some types (called high-risk HPV) cause the abnormal changes that are most likely to develop into cervical cancer. These types can pass from person to person during sex.

This virus is very common and most people are affected by it at some point. Usually the body’s immune system gets rid of it naturally. There are no symptoms and often the virus does not cause damage. Most people will never know they had it.

In some people, the immune system does not clear the infection and the virus stays in the body for longer. If the cervix is affected by HPV, it means the virus may cause damage that over a long time can develop into abnormal cells.

If your cervical screening test shows HPV or abnormal changes, this does not reveal details about your sex life. The virus can be passed on through any type of sexual contact. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection with HPV but does not offer complete protection.

HPV can affect people who:

  • have had one or more sexual partners
  • have had sex with men or with women
  • are in a long-term relationship with one person.

If you are in a sexual relationship, it is likely that your partner has already been affected by HPV. This is unlikely to cause them any harm. They do not need to be tested or treated for it.

Some people feel ashamed of having a condition that is linked to sex or worry what others will think. If you have worries or questions about HPV, ask your GP or nurse. Or you can talk to one of our cancer support specialists.

We have more information about HPV.


Other abnormal results

CGIN

Sometimes the screening test finds changes in a type of cell that lines the cervical canal. This can be a sign of a condition called cervical glandular intra-epithelial neoplasia (CGIN). If left untreated, CGIN may develop into a less common type of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma.

If you have signs of CGIN, your GP may arrange for you to have a test called a colposcopy to look at the cervix in more detail. Or they will arrange for you to be seen by a gynaecologist. This is a doctor who treats female reproductive system problems.

Cervical cancer

Rarely, cervical screening finds changes that may be a sign of very early cervical cancer. You will have a colposcopy to look at the cervix more closely. If any cancer is found you will see a gynaecologist for advice about treatment.

We have more information about treating cervical cancer.


Your feelings

People often say the hardest part of cervical screening is waiting for results. It is natural to worry about this.

Getting an abnormal test result can be stressful. Some people find the uncertainty difficult to cope with. And it can be frustrating to find you need more tests or treatment and will have to wait for results again.

It is important to remember that most people who have an abnormal test result will not develop cervical cancer. The aim of screening is to find the small number of people who need treatment to prevent cancer. Research shows that screening tests in the UK are good at this.

If you are struggling to cope with worries about cervical screening, it may help to talk about it. You may want to talk to a friend or family member. Your GP or practice nurse can answer any questions you have and explain ways they can support you. There are several organisations that provide information and support about this, such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Or you can call our cancer support specialists.

Your mind goes into overdrive with thoughts just whirling round your head. I found taking a walk and being in the fresh air distracted me a bit. I hated being on my own so meeting up with friends is also a good strategy.

Sue

Back to Cervical screening and CIN

About cervical screening

Cervical screening checks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Finding and treating these changes can prevent cancer developing.

Colposcopy and CIN

A colposcopy is a test that shows any abnormal areas of the cervix and how abnormal the cells there are.