What Is Cytology?
Cytology, or cytopathology, is a method of examining cells taken from small samples of body tissues or fluids to help determine a diagnosis. The samples are examined under a microscope by a cytopathologist or pathologist in a laboratory. The pathologist or cytopathologist looks for abnormalities or specific characteristics in the cells that can identify a disease, infection, or abnormality.
Cytology is frequently used for cancer screening or diagnosis, but it can provide valuable information in all areas of medicine.
Types Of Cytology
There are two types of cytology that are based on how the cells are collected for testing.
Exfoliative cytology uses cells that have been scraped or brushed from the surface of your tissue or that your body naturally sheds or excretes.
If you’ve ever had to provide a urine sample or had the inside of your nostril swabbed for a flu or COVID-19 test, you’ve seen exfoliative cytology in action.
Cells that are scraped or brushed off include:
- Gastrointestinal samples taken during an endoscopy
- Mucus samples scraped off mucus membranes like those inside your mouth or nostril
- Pap smear
- Skin samples
Samples that are shed naturally include:
- Mucus or saliva that you’ve coughed up
- Secretion or discharge samples, like unusual eye drainage
Intervention cytology examines samples that must be collected from inside your body by your doctor. A common type is when a very thin needle is used to draw fluid out of a cyst or a lump in the breast. This method is called fine-needle aspiration (FNA).
Cells that are removed from within your body include those in:
- Cysts (fluid-filled lumps)
- Lumps under the skin
- Lymph nodes
- Pericardial fluid from the sac around your heart
- Pleural fluid from between a lung and your chest wall
What Is Cytology Used For?
Cytology is used to diagnose the cause when a patient has symptoms that resemble a particular infection or disease. It can also be used to screen for a disease before a patient has symptoms.
The most common use is to diagnose or screen for cancer, but it is also used to diagnose:
- Diseases in some body cavities
- Infectious diseases
- Inflammatory conditions
- And to examine thyroid lesions
Benefits Of Cytology Over a Tissue Biopsy
A cytology test only requires a very small sample of tissue or fluid. Unlike a tissue biopsy, samples can usually be collected quickly and with little to no discomfort.
Compared to a tissue biopsy, a cytology test:
- Causes fewer complications
- Costs less
- Is less invasive
- Is less painful
However, a tissue biopsy may be necessary to get a more accurate diagnosis in certain situations. Your physician, with support from the pathologist, can help you make that determination.
What Type of Results Are Produced?
Results of a test may be available in a few days or as long as a couple of weeks. Some samples need more examination than others. Others need special tests, a second opinion, or more processing time.
Depending on what type of sample is tested, the results may be:
- Whether or not abnormal cells were found
- What type of cancer, disease, or infection was found
- If cancer is found, what grade it is
- If additional testing is recommended
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