What is cervical screening (a smear test)?
Cervical screening is a free health test that helps prevent cervical cancer. It checks for cell changes (abnormal cells) on your cervix caused by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). It is not a test for cancer.
You might hear cervical screening being called a smear test. This is just a different name for the same test.
Who can have cervical screening?
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 very rare to develop cervical cancer:
- under the age of 25
- over the age of 64, if you have had regular cervical screening.
We have more information if you are under 25 or if you are 65 or over.
If you are worried about any symptoms, you should get them checked by your doctor or nurse, whatever your age.
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 your legs bent up and 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 – 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.
- Your sample of cells is put into a small plastic container (vial) of liquid. The liquid preserves the cells.
- That’s it! The test is over for you. The nurse will take the speculum out of your vagina and give you a private space to dress again. They will explain how and when you should get your results.
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.
Someone having cervical screening (a smear test)
More information and support
Whether it’s your first time or you have been many times before, going for cervical screening may make you anxious, but Jo's Trust are here to help.
If you have questions or just want to talk things through, give Jo's Trust Helpline a call on 0808 802 8000. They also have an online forum where you can chat with others who have been for cervical screening or may have similar questions.
For more information, help and support visit www.jostrust.org.uk