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Cervical Cancer Awareness: Everything you need to know about a smear test

Many women worry about having their cervical screening (smear tests) due to fear or embarrassment, but it’s so important that women look after their health and attend their regular appointments.

Here, Dr Robyn Cohen, Women’s Health GP at HCA Healthcare UK, answers the top questions related to a smear test, so that women can go into their appointments feeling prepared.

 

What is a smear test?

A smear test checks the health of your cervix (the opening to your womb from your vagina). During a smear test, your nurse or doctor will take a sample from your cervix to look for HPV (human papilloma virus) and any abnormal cervical cells. The purpose of the smear test is to pick up any changes in the cells before they progress. Samples are taken by inserting a small speculum to view the cervix and then using a soft, small brush to take a sample of cells.

 

Image: This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic

Cervical screening at The Portland Hospital

Is a smear test painful?

The test might feel a little strange or uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. The nurse or GP will use lubrication when inserting the speculum and the entire screening appointment should take less than five minutes.

How often should I have a smear test?

In the UK, the NHS cervical screening programme is for women aged 25-64 years of age. Women are invited for their first screening test at the age of 25. Between the ages of 25 and 49, women are offered cervical screening every three years. Between the ages of 50 and 64, women are offered cervical screening every five years.

If you’re under the age of 25 and have concerns about your sexual health, risk of contracting HPV or are worried about your risk of developing cervical cancer, you can contact your GP to have this done earlier.

You can also arrange cervical screening appointments privately with your HCA UK GP as part of a health screen or regular GP appointment or with a private HCA UK consultant gynaecologist. 

What does my smear result mean?

There are four possible results after having your smear test:

1. HPV not detected - normal smear test result -. Your test result has come back as normal, which is the most common result for women. It’s still important to attend regular screening appointments every three or five years depending on your age.

2. HPV detected, cytology negative (no abnormal cells) - the virus was detected but has caused no pre-cancerous cell changes. You should repeat the smear in 12 months.

3. HPV detected, cytology positive - the virus was detected and abnormal cells were detected. In these cases, referral for a colposcopy with a gynaecologist is recommended.

4. Inadequate results - the sample was inconclusive and should be repeated in three months.

How has COVID-19 affected cervical screening?

If you have been invited for your cervical screening appointment, it’s important that you attend as normal. Travel for medical appointments is permitted no matter what tier you are or whether the country is in a national lockdown. Upon arrival for your screening appointment at the doctor’s surgery or hospital, you will be required to wear a face covering. Your doctor or nurse who will be conducting the procedure will be wearing PPE to ensure the safety of all patients. 

What happens if I am referred for a colposcopy?

If you are told that the virus has been detected, as well as abnormal cells, your GP will then refer you to a consultant gynaecologist to have a procedure called a colposcopy. For this procedure, cervical cells are stained with a special dye so that abnormal cells light up and can be easily identified and removed.

 Once the abnormal cells have been removed, you will be advised to have a follow-up smear test in six months’ time. If abnormal cells are found again, you will have another colposcopy and the abnormal cells will be removed again. This process will continue until the HPV result is negative and no abnormal cells are found.
Referral for a colposcopy

Why is it important to attend your cervical screening appointment?

By attending your regular smear tests, any changes to the cells in the cervix can be picked up, monitored and treated if necessary. If left untreated, these changes can progress and lead to a cervical cancer diagnosis.

Having a smear test is nothing to worry about and it is over very quickly. It’s such an important step that you can take to look after your own health.

Book a cervical screening (smear test) at our nurse-led screening service at The Portland Hospital
 
Book a screening appointment with one of our Primary Care GPs
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