More than a quarter of women who receive slightly abnormal smear test results experience unnecessarily high levels of anxiety, research suggests.
Smears show up abnormal cells
A team led by Aberdeen University researchers looked at anxiety in more than 3,500 women with the type of test results which rarely lead to cancer.
They call for more information and support to help women better understand their result and ease their fears.
The study features in the British Journal of Cancer.
Almost 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year.
It can affect women of any age who are, or once were, sexually active and is the second most common cancer in women under 35.
Scientists have linked nearly all cases of cervical cancer to human papillomavirus (HPV).
More serious cases
The latest research found 23% of women who received slightly abnormal results were probably suffering from clinical anxiety, while a further 20% were "possible" cases.
The study suggests that anxiety levels are as high in women whose test results were borderline, as those whose results contained more definitive bad news.
Lead researcher Nicola Gray said: "This suggests that women may not understand their test results or the meaning of the term pre-cancerous, and wrongly conclude that any abnormalities detected must indicate cancer."
The results also showed that women at highest risk of anxiety tended to be younger, have children, and are smokers or have the highest levels of physical activity.
A slightly abnormal test result rarely means that a woman has cervical cancer.
It means that some of the cells on the smear were slightly abnormal and could become cancerous sometime in the future.
Usually good outcome
In the vast majority of cases these slightly abnormal cells go back to normal by themselves and the doctor will ask the woman to come back in six months for a repeat smear to make sure.
Alternatively, the doctor will carry out another examination called a colposcopy to examine the cervix more closely and take action to treat the cells if necessary.
If a woman is treated for an abnormal smear she is very unlikely to go on to develop cervical cancer.
Martin Ledwick, a cancer nurse manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "It is vitally important women understand that smear tests are all about cancer prevention.
"The test detects abnormal cells that could become cancerous and follow-up treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing.
"The national screening programme is estimated to save thousands of lives in the UK every year.
"But if women are worried unnecessarily by the results of their smear the concern is they won't continue to go for regular checks."