What are the Limitations of the Pap Test?

The Pap test is an important part of a woman’s overall health. It helps detect precancerous cells in the cervix before they develop into cancer. However, the Pap test as a cervical prevention tool has its limitations, so women should speak to their doctor about these if they get a Pap test.


The biggest limitation of the Pap test is that, like many tests, it does not guarantee accurate results. A Pap test may return a false positive, meaning it suggests there are abnormal cells in the cervix when there are none. It can also return a false negative, indicating that there are no abnormalities in the cervical cells when there are. For this reason, when a Pap test returns with a positive result, meaning abnormalities were found, a doctor will typically perform another test before discussing treatment options with the patient.


It is important to note that a Pap test is not a diagnostic test. It is simply a screening method used to determine who may be at higher risk for developing cervical cancer in the future. A positive Pap test result does not necessarily mean that a woman has cancer, or that she will even likely develop it. A positive result only means that a woman has some abnormalities that may make it more likely that they could develop cancer.


As such, when a woman has cervical abnormalities, she may sometimes be treated for a condition that will not develop into cancer. Since these conditions may not turn cancerous, the treatment one receives for these may not be necessary.


After a positive Pap test result is returned, additional Pap tests are sometimes recommended. This is because results can sometimes be skewed by sample preparation errors, inaccurate microscopic examination, and the like. A second test may confirm the result or indicate that errors were made the first time. After additional Pap smears, a doctor will likely recommend a colposcopy, biopsy, or an endocervical scraping to accurately diagnose cervical cancer.


Getting regular Pap tests can be very helpful in detecting the presence of precancerous cervical cancer cells. It is for this reason doctors recommend women get them every three years beginning at the age of 21. However, like any medical test, Pap tests have their limitations.


Women should always discuss the limitations of a Pap test with their doctor prior to the test. Knowing that things can go wrong during samples analyses and preparations can help reassure women that their positive test results do not necessarily mean they have cervical cancer nor that they will develop it. When a positive result returns, women should speak to their doctor about their possible treatment options and ensure they understand whether or not the treatment is absolutely necessary for their health.