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What should I expect from a routine smear test?

Routine smear tests help to detect and remove the abnormal cells that could lead to cervical cancer.

Women aged 25 and older are recommended to have a routine smear test every few years. You are normally invited by your GP to book an appointment at timely intervals, how often will depend on your age and medical history. Some women can feel embarrassed or uncomfortable during their cervical screening, but it’s important to know that they are usually painless and your doctor or nurse will help you to feel as relaxed as possible.

What are smear tests for?

Smear tests, also known as cervical screening, check the health of the cells on a woman’s cervix and pick up on any abnormal cell changes.
Cervical cancer can affect women of all ages, and around 3,000 cases are diagnosed each year1. By screening women on a regular basis, thousands of potential cases can be found and abnormal cells removed before they potentially turn cancerous.

If abnormal cells are found on the cervix, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer and they can go back to normal on their own. As a precautionary measure, they may be removed to prevent them turning cancerous in the future.

How to book an appointment

Smear tests are optional and you can choose not to attend, but they are strongly recommended. Regular smear tests can save your life.

Generally, all women who are registered with a GP will be invited to a screening. Women aged 25 to 49 are encouraged to have a smear test every three years, while those aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years. If you are aged over 65, you may be asked to go for a smear test if you have recently had abnormal tests or haven’t been screened since the age of 50.

You will most likely receive a letter encouraging you to book an appointment with your local GP. You can choose to visit a sexual health clinic or a private surgery for your screening, where some women feel more comfortable.

For better accuracy, it’s advised to have your smear test in the middle of your menstrual cycle. You can ask to see a female doctor or nurse for your screening, and request to have a friend or family member with you for support if you require.

For the most accurate test, it’s advised to avoid using a spermicide or lubricant jelly for 24 hours before the test.

What happens at the appointment?

It’s important to remember that doctors and nurses carry out hundreds of smear tests and while you may feel embarrassed, they will endeavour to make you feel as relaxed and as comfortable as possible.

You will be asked to undress from the waist down and to make yourself comfortable with your back on the bed. If the bed has stirrups, you can place your ankles in the frame, or the nurse or doctor will ask you to either bring your knees up or to put your ankles together and your knees apart.

The procedure itself usually takes between three and five minutes. A speculum will be gently inserted into your vagina, sometimes using lubricant to make it a bit easier. This instrument holds the vagina open so the doctor or nurse can see the cervix and use a small brush to take a sample of some cells.

It’s important to relax as much as you can during the procedure to avoid the muscles in your vagina tensing. You can take slow, deep breaths, ask to listen to music, focus on a spot on the ceiling and count to 60 or tell the nurse or doctor what you have done that day, to help take your mind off the test.

What happens after the appointment?

Once the test has been taken, it will be sent off for testing, which usually takes around two weeks. Some people receive a letter in the post or you may be asked to arrange an appointment with your GP. It’s best to ask your doctor or nurse how you will receive your results at your appointment.

These tests check the cells for abnormalities, and if any are found, the cells will be tested for the HPV virus. Two strains out of 100 types of this virus are known to cause 70% of cervical cancer2. Any samples with the HPV virus will require further investigation, but it’s important not to worry – having the HPV virus does not automatically mean that you have cervical cancer.

Your doctor may advise you to have these cells removed as a precautionary measure, or you may be asked to have further tests.

If you are at all worried and would like to arrange a smear test or speak to a medical adviser about cervical cancer, call us to arrange an appointment.