What is cervical dysplasia?

Cervical dysplasia is a condition in which healthy cells on the cervix undergo some abnormal changes. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that leads into the vagina. It’s the cervix that dilates during childbirth to allow the fetus to pass through.

In cervical dysplasia, the abnormal cells aren’t cancerous, but can develop into cancer if not caught early and treated.

According to the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, every year in the United States cervical dysplasia affects between 250,000 and 1 million women. It’s most often seen in women between the ages of 25 and 35.

The incidence is decreasing with the use of the HPV vaccine. One type of HPV is estimated to have declined in the young female population in the United States by over 60 percent.

A common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical dysplasia. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, and there are hundreds of strains. Some are low-risk and cause genital warts.

Others are high-risk and cause cell changes that can turn into cervical dysplasia and cancer.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), an estimated 26.8 percent of U.S. women have tested positive for one or more strains of HPV.

There are several risk factors for cervical dysplasia, some of which relate directly to the risk of HPV:

  • having an illness that suppresses the immune system
  • being on immunosuppressant drugs
  • having multiple sexual partners
  • giving birth before the age of 16
  • having sex before the age of 18
  • smoking cigarettes

If you’re sexually active, a condom might reduce your risk of getting HPV. But the virus can still live on the skin surrounding the genitals not covered by the condom.

There are typically no symptoms of cervical dysplasia. Occasionally, abnormal bleeding may occur. However, in the absence of symptoms, the cell changes are invisible to the naked eye and are usually found during a regular Pap test.

Pap test results will indicate a squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL). This means cellular tissue damage or dysplasia.

There are different categories of SIL, including:

  • low-grade SIL (LSIL)
  • high-grade SIL (HSIL)
  • possibility of cancer
  • atypical glandular cells (AGUS)

Many times, LSIL goes away on its own. Your doctor might recommend a follow-up Pap test after several months to monitor the cell changes. If your doctor is concerned or you have high-grade changes, a colposcopy may be done.

A colposcopy is an in-office procedure that allows the doctor to get a very close view of your cervix. A vinegar solution is applied to the cervix and a special light is used. This makes any abnormal cells stand out.

The doctor can then take a small piece of cervical tissue, called a biopsy, to send to a lab for further testing. If a biopsy shows dysplasia, it’s then classified as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).

There are three categories of CIN:

  • CIN 1, mild dysplasia
  • CIN 2, moderate dysplasia
  • CIN 3, severe dysplasia, or carcinoma in situ

Carcinoma in situ is cancer that hasn’t spread below the surface layer of tissue.

Treatment of cervical dysplasia depends on the severity of the condition. Mild dysplasia might not be treated immediately since it can resolve without treatment. Repeat Pap smears may be done every three to six months.

For CIN 2 or 3, treatment can include:

Dysplasia is usually caught early because of regular Pap tests. Treatment typically cures cervical dysplasia, but it can return. If no treatment is given, the dysplasia may get worse, potentially turning into cancer.

While abstinence is the only definite way to prevent cervical dysplasia, you can do a number of things to reduce your risk of getting HPV and cervical dysplasia:

  • Use a condom or other protection when having sex.
  • Consider getting the HPV vaccine if you are between the ages of 11 and 26.
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes.
  • Wait to have sex until you are at least 18 years old.

Talk with your doctor about your sexual activity and steps that you can take to lower your risk of cervical dysplasia.