What Are the Common Causes of Abnormal Cervical Cells?

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  • Written By: Helen Akers
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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The common causes of abnormal cervical cells are infection, inflammation, viruses such as human papilloma virus (HPV) and herpes, and pre-cancerous changes. Abnormal cells are usually discovered during a routine pap smear, which is a test used to detect any changes in the structure of the cells. A sample of cells is taken from the wall of the cervix and examined. Most causes of abnormal cervical cells do not lead to the development of cancer if treated properly.

Yeast infections might cause a pap smear to come back as abnormal. These types of infections are caused by an imbalance in the bacteria levels in the vagina. They are not necessarily related to sexual activity and can be caused by certain prescription antibiotics.

Any type of inflammation or adverse reaction can result in abnormal cervical cells. Inflammation is the body's response to some sort of perceived injury or irritation. Douches, tampons, or even talcum powder might lead to an inflammatory response.

Sexual activity, especially if it is recent, is another potential cause of abnormal cells. This can be a result of inflammation from the activity. It usually only causes a temporary change in the cells.


Another common cause of abnormal pap test results is HPV. The term HPV actually describes a group of related viral strains; some types may lead to the development of genital warts, while others are more likely to cause pre-cancerous changes to the cervix. A large majority of HPV cases do not result in visible outbreaks or symptoms. It is a virus that can be treated, but not cured.

Many of the types of abnormal cervical cells indicate a potential infection with HPV. A pap smear test result of ASCUS or LSIL indicate possible HPV. An ASCUS result means that the cells are not normal, but they are not necessarily linked to a particular abnormality. Since they may be potentially related to major changes in the cell structure, a colposcopy is sometimes performed.

A colposcopy is a more in-depth pelvic exam that involves a careful examination of any abnormal cervical cells. During the exam, the doctor visualizes the surface of the cervix with the aid of a device called a colposcope. A biopsy may be performed during a colposcopy. This procedure involves taking more sample tissue for further lab testing.

Some changes in cervical cells can indicate pre-cancerous tissue. The pap test results will usually indicate major structural changes and be coded as HSIL. This result does not mean that cancer will develop, but that the risk is higher. Treatment is usually performed on these types of cervical cells.

In addition to surface cells, glandular cells also exist in the cervix and can come back as abnormal. Changes in these cells usually indicate a potentially serious problem, such as cancer. A colposcopy is usually needed to determine why glandular cells have changed.


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