What are abnormal cervical cells?

An abnormal cervical screening test result means that you have changes in the cells covering the neck of your womb (cervix). These changes are not cancer. The cells often go back to normal by themselves. But in some women, if not treated, these changes could develop into cancer in the future. 

Your screening result may say you have:

  • low grade (borderline or mild cell changes)
  • high grade (severe or moderate cell changes)

After an abnormal screening test result

If your results show you have human papillomavirus (HPV) then cytology will be done to look at the cells under the microscope in more detail. If the results are abnormal then you will be referred to a colposcopy clinic for a closer look at your cervix. During this examination, your doctor or specialist nurse (colposcopist) can take samples (biopsies) of any abnormal areas.

The colposcopist might offer you treatment at the same time as your colposcopy. Or you may go back for treatment once they have your biopsy results.

If you tested positive for HPV but your cytology results were normal then you will invited back for a smear test in a years time. If in a years time you still test positive for HPV, then you might be referred for a colposcopy. 

Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN)

Your biopsy results may show cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). This is not cancer. There are changes to the cells that cover the outside of the cervix (squamous cells).

There are 3 grades of CIN and they relate to how deeply the abnormal cells have gone into the skin covering the cervix. 

  • CIN 1 – up to one third of the thickness of the lining covering the cervix has abnormal cells
  • CIN 2 – between one third and two thirds of the skin covering the cervix has abnormal cells
  • CIN 3 – the full thickness of the lining covering the cervix has abnormal cells
Diagram showing the stages of CIN

Both the cell abnormality (mild, moderate or severe) and the CIN level are taken into account when deciding which treatment will be best for you. The treatment aims to remove or destroy the abnormal cervical cells.

CIN 1 doesn't normally need treatment as the cell changes often return to normal over time.

Cervical glandular intraepithelial neoplasia (CGIN)

Your biopsy results may show CGIN. This means there are changes to the glandular cells that line the inside of the cervix. Without treatment these cells could develop into a type of cervical cancer called adenocarcinoma.

CGIN is less common than CIN, but is treated in a similar way.

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