Cervical dysplasia is a precancerous, atypical growth of cells that develop on the surface of the cervix. A persistent infection of human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical dysplasia. While not cancerous, experts describe the condition as a precursor to cervical cancer.

Regular Pap smears and cervical cancer screenings can help detect cervical dysplasia. Upon diagnosis, a doctor can provide treatment and prevent further progression.

Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that it affects between 250,000 and 1 million women each year in the United States.

This article covers the symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatment, and prevention of cervical dysplasia. It also looks at the stages of cervical dysplasia and the diagnosis process.

A doctor talking to a woman about cervical dysplasia.Share on Pinterest
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Cervical dysplasia typically does not cause any symptoms. Similarly, according to the advocacy group Planned Parenthood, most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health issues.

A doctor often diagnoses cervical dysplasia after performing a routine Pap smear.

If cervical dysplasia develops into cervical cancer, a person may experience symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that early stages of cervical cancer may not present with symptoms.

However, advanced stages of cervical cancer can cause atypical bleeding and discharge. This may include bleeding after sex.

According to a 2021 article, cervical dysplasia occurs as a result of a persistent HPV infection.

HPV refers to a group of over 200 related viruses. Of those, HPV 16 accounts for 50% of cervical cancer cases.

The CDC states that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most sexually active people will have exposure to the virus, and in 90% of cases, the immune system will clear the virus from the body within 2 years.

However, some individuals may develop persistent cases of HPV. When this occurs, the infection can lead to cervical dysplasia, which, without treatment, can lead to the development of cervical cancer.

Cervical dysplasia is a precursor to developing cervical cancer. The following factors can increase the chance of developing cervical cancer:

  • contracting HPV
  • becoming sexually active at a younger age, particularly younger than 18 years
  • having multiple sexual partners
  • having a sexual partner who has HPV or has multiple sexual partners
  • smoking
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having chlamydia
  • long-term oral contraceptive use
  • having multiple full-term pregnancies
  • having a full-term pregnancy younger than 20 years of age
  • exposure to diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic form of the female hormone estrogen
  • having a family history of cervical cancer

The 2021 article notes that exposure to HPV at a young age can increase the chance of contracting a persistent HPV infection.

The National Cancer Institute states that cervical dysplasia can be mild, moderate, or severe. Doctors classify them using a grading system:

  • Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL): This is a mild form of dysplasia that healthcare professionals may also refer to as CIN 1. Mildly atypical cells are present on the surface of the cervix. These lesions typically resolve without treatment. However, if they spread into the nearby tissues, they can become cancerous.
  • High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL): This is a moderate or severe form of dysplasia that healthcare professionals may also refer to as CIN 2 or CIN 3. CIN 2 is when moderately atypical cells develop on the surface of the cervix, while CIN 3 is when severely atypical cells appear on the surface of the cervix.

Both types may or may not become cancerous.

Cervical dysplasia can take 10–30 years to progress into cervical cancer. Therefore, experts suggest that most people who develop cervical dysplasia must have first come into contact with HPV at a young age.

A healthcare professional can diagnose cervical dysplasia with a routine Pap smear test.

If the results indicate the presence of LSIL, the doctor will ask a person to return for additional testing to ensure that the changes are not more serious.

If the results detect the presence of HSIL, an individual may need to undergo a colposcopy. This is a medical procedure that allows a healthcare professional to take a closer look at the cells of the cervix.

A doctor may also perform a biopsy, which involves removing a small piece of cervical tissue.

Lab results can show whether an area of cells may be precancerous or cancerous. A person’s doctor will recommend treatment from there.

Treatment often depends on the severity of cervical dysplasia.

The 2021 article notes that for mild cases, a person may just need to adopt a wait and watch approach. A year later, a doctor will likely recommend a follow-up Pap smear.

For moderate to severe cases or when a mild case does not go away, a doctor will likely recommend surgical removal of the growth.

Potential options include:

  • cone biopsy or cervical conization, which are surgical options to remove part of the cervix
  • laser therapy, which uses concentrated light to destroy the cells
  • loop electrosurgical excision procedure, which involves the use of an electrified wire to remove atypical cells
  • cryocauterization or cryosurgery, which uses extremely cold temperatures to freeze the atypical area

To help prevent cervical dysplasia, a person should get the HPV vaccination. The CDC recommends the vaccination for children aged 11–12 years and those who are sexually active and under the age of 26.

People should also attend regular screenings, which include cervical cancer screenings and Pap smears.

Another prevention method is to practice safe sex. People should use barrier protection methods of contraception, such as condoms and dental dams. This can help reduce the chances of contracting HPV.

A person will likely have several questions if they receive a cervical dysplasia diagnosis.

Though people should tailor their questions to their own needs, the following may provide a helpful starting point on what to ask, whether before or after a diagnosis of the condition.

  • What does my Pap smear result mean?
  • What are the next steps?
  • Can I get the HPV vaccination?
  • When do you recommend I get my next Pap smear?
  • What treatment do you recommend for my situation?
  • What can I expect following treatment?
  • Should I follow up with an oncologist?

It is important to note that cervical dysplasia does not always lead to cervical cancer. There are treatment options to remove the atypical cells before they develop into cancer.

People should attend regular Pap smears to help prevent the development of cervical dysplasia.

Cervical dysplasia is a precancerous growth consisting of atypical cells on the surface of the cervix. It occurs as a result of a persistent HPV infection.

The condition does not typically cause symptoms, which means screenings, such as a Pap smear, can help identify the condition early.

A person can get the HPV vaccine and use barrier contraception methods, such as dental dams and condoms, to reduce their risk of contracting HPV. In turn, this reduces the risk of developing cervical dysplasia.