What is cervical screening?
Cervical Screening, also known as a smear test, is a free health test that helps to prevent cervical cancer. It checks for abnormalities (changes in the cells) on the cervix caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The test does not test for cancer.
In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are:
- between the ages of 25 to 64
- registered as female with a GP surgery.
You are invited:
- every 3 years between age 25 and 49
- every 5 years between age 50 and 64
You may get your first invite up to 6 months before you turn 25. You can book an appointment as soon as you get the invite.
It is usually recommended that you do not have cervical screening while you are or could be pregnant. Pregnancy can make the result of your test harder to interpret. More information about cervical screening whilst pregnant can be found on the NHS website.
It is very rare to develop cervical cancer:
- under the age of 25
- over the age of 64, if you have had regular cervical screening.
If you are worried about any symptoms, you should get them checked by your doctor or nurse, whatever your age.
What happens during a cervical screening appointment?
If you feel worried about going for cervical screening (a smear test), you are not alone. It may help to know as much as possible about what going for cervical screening is like. Ask someone you trust about their experience or speak with your doctor or nurse.
Before your appointment
- If you are registered with a GP, you will get a letter telling you it is time for your cervical screening appointment. You have to ring your GP to book an appointment. If you don’t want to go to the GP, see if sexual health clinics in your local area offer cervical screening.
- If you get regular periods, try not to book an appointment when you are bleeding as it can make it harder to get a clear sample of cells. But the most important thing is booking an appointment at a time that works for you.
- Do not use spermicide or lubricant jelly (lube) for 24 hours before the test, as they can affect the results.
During your appointment
Your whole visit to the GP surgery should not take longer than about 15 minutes, with the test itself taking about 3 minutes.
- Your nurse (sometimes called a sample taker) invites you into a treatment room. They should explain what cervical screening is and check if you have any questions.
- Your nurse gives you a private space, usually behind a curtain, and asks you to undress from the waist down. If you are wearing a dress or skirt, you can leave this on and just remove your underwear.
- Your nurse asks you to lie on an examination bed. Usually you lie on your back with:
1. your legs bent up
2. your ankles together and your knees apart.
Some examination beds have stirrups on them. If yours does, you should place your feet in the stirrups. If this is uncomfortable, you can ask to lie on your left side with your knees bent (left lateral position).
You get a paper sheet to cover the lower half of your body.
- Your nurse lets you know when the test is about to start. First, they gently put a new, clean speculum into your vagina. A speculum is usually a plastic cylinder with a round end (see picture below) – sometimes a metal speculum is used. The speculum is sometimes the part that people find uncomfortable.
- Once the speculum is inside your vagina, the nurse gently opens it so they can see your cervix.
- Then the nurse uses a small, soft brush to quickly take a sample of cells from your cervix. This may feel a little strange, but should not be painful.
After your appointment
Most people can continue their day as usual after the appointment. You may have some very light bleeding (spotting) for a day after the test, so it can help to wear a sanitary pad or panty-liner.
Cervical screening should not feel painful, but it may feel a bit uncomfortable. If you have any pain or other problems, it is important to let your doctor or nurse know.
Getting the results
Waiting for cervical screening results may make you feel anxious. Most people will have clear results, and about 1 in 20 will have an abnormal result.
It is extremely rare for cervical cancer to be diagnosed from cervical screening. Only about 1 in 2,000 (less than 1%) people with an abnormal cervical screening result will have cervical cancer.
How long will it take to get my results?
You should get your cervical screening (smear test) results within 2 weeks after your test, but it can take longer. The time between having cervical screening and getting your results can also vary depending on where you live. At your appointment, ask your nurse how long it will take to get your results and how you will get them.
Getting your results early or later does not affect what the result is, so try not to worry. If you are concerned, speak with your GP.
How will I get my results?
You should always get your results letter in the post. If you don’t get a letter within the timeframe your GP surgery gave you, ring them.
If your sample needed further investigation or you need more tests, the hospital may contact you with your results.
What do my results mean?
This depends on where you live and what type of testing is being done on your sample.
A normal test result means no abnormal cell changes have been found. You will usually be invited for cervical screening again in 3 or 5 years, depending on your age.
You may need to repeat the test after 3 months because the first one couldn’t be read properly.
This may be because:
- not enough cells were collected
- the cells couldn't be seen clearly enough
- an infection was present
An abnormal result may show borderline or low-grade cell changes (dyskaryosis). These changes are very close to being normal and may disappear without treatment. In some areas of England and in Northern Ireland, your same sample will be tested for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) if these changes are seen.
Your letter will tell you what to do:
- If no HPV is found, you can go back to normal (routine) screening.
- If HPV is found, you will be invited to colposcopy where an expert will take a closer look at your cervix.
An abnormal result may show high-grade (moderate or severe) dyskaryosis. This means you will be invited to colposcopy, where an expert will take a closer look at your cervix.
Read more about colposcopy on the NHS website
All these results show you have abnormal cell changes. This doesn't mean you have cancer or will get cancer. It just means that some of your cells are abnormal, and if they're not treated they may develop into cervical cancer.