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What is cytology?

Cytology is the exam of a single cell. These cells are often found in fluid samples. Cytology is used to do the following:

  • Diagnose or screen for cancer or diseases
  • Screen for fetal abnormalities
  • Screen for Pap tests
  • Diagnose infectious organisms
  • Work with other screening and diagnostic areas

The cells to be examined may be taken by these methods:

  • Scraping or brushing the tissue surface, such as during a Pap test

  • Collecting body fluids, such as for urine or respiratory mucus (phlegm)

  • Removing cells by drawing them through a fine needle (fine-needle aspiration), such as abdominal fluid in ascites, pleural fluid from the lungs, cells from a thyroid nodule, or cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal canal

  • Doing other types of tissue biopsy 

Cytology is different from histology. Cytology generally means looking at a single cell on its own. Histology is looking at an entire block of tissue.