Cytology is the study of your individual body cells. These cells are looked at under a microscope to prevent and diagnose disease.

What is cytology

Cytology, sometimes called cytopathology, involves looking at your individual cells to screen for and diagnose diseases. A sample of cells is taken from your body and suitably prepared. It is then looked at under the microscope to identify the cell and check for any abnormal cell changes.

A cytology test can be used to diagnose possible cancer and also pre-cancer which is cell changes that if left untreated may develop into true cancer. It can also diagnose many non-cancerous medical conditions such as infections and systemic diseases.

Is cytology a biopsy?

No cytology is not a biopsy. They are similar in that they both are used to help healthcare professionals determine a diagnosis. However, they have some differences.

Cytology only requires a very small sample and a pathologist will examine the individual cells or clusters of cells. Biopsies usually involve taking larger pieces of tissue than in a cytology test. A pathologist may examine several types of cells in a biopsy tissue sample.

Biopsy procedures are generally more invasive than cytology tests. They may require a local or general anaesthetic. A cytology test is typically simple and painless.

Sometimes a biopsy is performed in addition to cytology to confirm a cancer diagnosis.

What is an example of cytology?

Cytology tests can be used to investigate cells in almost all areas of your body. Some common types of cytology tests include gynaecologic, urinary, breast, thyroid, gastroenterology tract, lymph node, respiratory, eye, and ear cytology.

You will only have a diagnostic cytology test if you have signs or symptoms that suggest you might have a certain disease or infection. A diagnostic cytology test investigates if abnormal cells are present and if they are, the test accurately classifies the disease.

Screening cytology tests are used to see if you could have a certain disease, such as cancer, even before you experience symptoms. Cervical screening (a smear test) is offered to all women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64. This takes a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix and checks them for high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause changes to the cells of your cervix. If these types of HPV are found, the sample is checked for any cervix cell changes that can turn into cervical cancer.

What are the two types of cytology?

There are two main types of cytology:

  • Exfoliative cytology – the examined cells are either “shed” by your body naturally or are manually scraped or brushed (exfoliated) from the surface of your tissue.

    Examples that collect naturally shed tissues or fluids include respiratory samples in spit and coughed up mucous, a urine sample, and discharge or secretion samples perhaps from your eye, vagina or nipple.

    Examples of cells retrieved by manual brushing include cervical screening, skin or mucous samples, and gastrointestinal tract samples using endoscopy.

  • Intervention cytology – is when a sample of cells is obtained by “intervening” with your body and piercing your skin in some way to get a sample of cells.

The most common type of intervention cytology is fine-needle aspiration (FNA). This involves a healthcare provider injecting a thin needle into the area that they need to sample and drawing out fluid that is then examined under a microscope.

Fine-needle aspiration may be performed on fluid-filled lumps (cysts) under your skin, solid lumps (nodules or masses) under your skin, your lymph nodes, your pericardial fluid (fluid in the sac around your heart), and your pleural fluid (in the space between your lung and the inside of your chest wall).

What is the procedure for cytology tests?

Cytology tests differ slightly depending on the type of cells being tested and if the sample is tissue or fluid.

In general, there are four steps to a cytology test. They include:

  1. Collecting the sample cells – such as by brushing, scraping, collecting a urine sample, or using fine-need aspiration.
  2. Processing the sample cells - the sample may be smeared onto the microscope slide, dyed to help make the cells easier to see, or put in a centrifuge to separate the cells they want to examine from the fluid.
  3. Examining the sample cells – under a microscope and marking abnormal cells.
  4. Sharing the results - the pathologist will send a report to your healthcare provider who will share them with you and discuss any next steps.

What is the most common test done in cytology?

Cytology is most commonly used to diagnose or screen for cancer. The most common test done in cytology is the cervical screening test.


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