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What happens at a cervical screening or smear test?

Updated: Jan 31

Cervical screening offers the best protection against cervical cancer. It is a fact that the sooner the disease is caught, the better the chance of successful treatment. However, many women choose not to attend their smear test. Maybe you'd like to find more as you've had your first letter asking you to book a cervical screening? Or perhaps you've never had one and you want to find out more? No one wants to go for their cervical screening, but if it just might save your life, it's worth doing. In this article, I will go into detail into what the cervical screening or smear test is, what's involved and why it's so important that you attend your smear test appointment. In reality, cervical screening is nothing to be afraid of or embarrassed about; it could save your life.


What is a cervical screening?



A cervical screening, pap test, pap smear or smear test is conducted to check the health of your cervix (the opening to your womb from your vagina). The test does not detect cancer, it actually is a test to help prevent cancer from ever forming. That is why the NHS invites you to come for a screening every three years from the age of 25. All women aged 25-64 should be invited to make an appointment for their cervical screening and a letter will be sent to them by the NHS through the post.

During the screening, a small sample of your cells will be taken from your cervix. This sample is then tested (or screened) for changes or abnormalities to the cells of your cervix. If abnormal changes are found, it means that they can be monitored before they become a problem and treated so that cancer is never able to form in your body. The appointment takes just a few minutes, and you are sent a letter about two weeks later with your results.


Why is it important to have a cervical screening?



Put simply, it is one of the best ways to protect yourself from developing cervical cancer. The test checks for abnormal cell changes or the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the name for a common group of viruses transmitted from any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, and most people will contract some type of HPV in their lives. Some types of HPV can lead to cell changes which can, in turn, lead to cervical cancer. As nearly all cervical cancers are caused by certain types of HPV infection, a cervical screening is essentially a proactive measure against the development of cervical cancer.

Find out more about by visiting NHS Scotland's website.


Could I be at risk of cervical cancer?


If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact with a female or male, you have a chance of getting cervical cancer. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine you can still be at risk as there are various strains and types of HPV and the vaccine may not cover all of them. It doesn't matter how many times you've had sex, the number of partners you've had, or their genders; you may still have HPV.


So what happens during the cervical screening?



The whole appointment takes around ten minutes, and the test itself should take less than 5. It is usually conducted by a female nurse or doctor, and you are well within your rights to choose to see a female nurse or doctor for your appointment. If it is your first test, they will explain to you what will happen during the test and answer any questions you may have. Remember, the nurse or doctor conducting your test is a professional and no question will sound silly to them, so don't be afraid to ask!


4 simple steps


  1. Your nurse or doctor will ask you to remove your clothing from the waist down and will allow you do to so in privacy behind a curtain. You should undress from the waist down, including your underwear, and lie on a bed. They will provide you with a sheet to cover yourself. When you are done, let them know you are ready for them to come behind the curtain.

  2. The nurse or doctor will ask you to like back on the bed with your legs bent, feet together and knees apart. This might feel a little bit uncomfortable and embarrassing (and cold!) but it is essential for the nurse to be able to get the sample easily. Remember, they do these screenings very regularly and routinely and will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible.

  3. The nurse will gently put a smooth, tube-shaped tool called a speculum into your vagina, sometimes using a small amount of lubricant. It will feel cold and slightly strange. The nurse will then open the speculum so that they can see your cervix, and using a soft brush, will take a small sample of cells from your cervix. This may feel unusual but this should only be for a few seconds.

  4. The nurse will then close and carefully remove the speculum and allow you to redress in privacy. After that, you're all done. If you would like the nurse to stop at any point, you can do. The more relaxed you are, the easier and less uncomfortable you will feel.


Tips for preparing for a cervical screening and to make the process more comfortable:


  • Try to relax as much as possible. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be for the nurse to perform the screening.

  • If you need to, you could bring someone with you for support. This is normal and you should not have a problem if you wish to do this.

  • Wear something long such as a skirt or a long jumper. This will make it easier and more comfortable for you to dress and undress.

  • You can request to lie in a different position if it is more comfortable for you. Your nurse will help you with this if you require assistance.

  • If you are nervous or worried, you can bring some music to listen to or a book to read during the test.

  • Try not to book the screening during your period. This is because it is more difficult to get a result whilst you are on your period.

  • Avoid using spermicide or oil-based lubricant for 24 hours before the test as these can also affect your results.


Is the smear test painful?


Everyone's experience of the cervical screening is different. Some people don't find it uncomfortable, whereas some people may find it uncomfortable or hurt. There are lots of reasons for this. The main way to make the test as quick and easy as possible is to try to relax your muscles during your appointment.


How to book your cervical screening appointment


If you're registered with an NHS GP, you will receive your letter telling you that it's time to make your appointment. Simply call your GP surgery and make your cervical screening appointment. You can also have your cervical screening done at a sexual health clinic or your private healthcare GP clinic. It is important to check that they will be able to carry out a cervical screening for you.


What to expect after the cervical screening appointment



Most people will not feel any different and will be able to go about their day with no issues whatsoever. You may notice some very light bleeding or spotting for a day after the test.

You should receive the results of your test within 14 days. If 14 have passed and you still have not had your results back, don't worry! Just give your GP a call to see if they have any updates on your results.


How to translate your results


Your letter will explain what your results mean. Most people have a normal result, and in this instance, you will not need any further tests for another 3-5 years. Your letter may request that you come back in three months to have another test. This does not mean that something has been picked up in the test. It just means that the results were not clear and that they may need to clarify.


If your result is abnormal, your letter will explain what happens next and if any treatment or further testing may be required.


In summary



To conclude, cervical screenings are an important part of female health. This is because they detect HPV and the early signs that could lead to cervical cancer.  This means that it is so important that when you receive your letter, you should go to your appointment. Whether it's your first time or you have been for a cervical screening before, you may feel anxious about your appointment for many reasons. This is why it is important to remember that you can take someone with you for support if you would like.


If you have any more questions or need emotional support, you can visit jostrust.org.uk to find out more, or call their free helpline on 0808 802 8000. They have an online forum you can ask questions or communicate with other women about the cervical screening. In addition, they also have information for cervical screening for people with a learning disability, or people who have experienced sexual violence.


Book your appointment now



If you would like to book your appointment with a private GP, we can help. Choose one of our experienced female GPs and we conduct the screening in a private, comfortable environment. We provide unrushed GP appointments. This means that you have plenty of time to ask the GP any questions either before or after the test. We will send your results to you whatever way you prefer.


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