Cervical cancer prevention: Everything you need to know about a cervical smear test

Dr Jane Benn GP

Going for your regular cervical screen (smear test) is the best way to catch any early changes in your cells and prevent cervical cancer. Although you might be nervous about attending your screen, it’s so important that you get yourself regularly checked.

Here, Dr Jane Benjamin, Women’s Health GP at Roodlane Medical, part of HCA Healthcare UK, answers the top questions related to a smear test, including what you can do to make yourself comfortable and why you shouldn’t be alarmed if your smear test comes back as abnormal.

What is a smear test?

A smear test, otherwise known as cervical screening, is a short test that checks for human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. If you are found to have a high-risk HPV infection, the cells of the cervix are examined in more detail. It isn’t a test for cancer, but instead a test to look for any abnormal changes to the cervix and help prevent cancer. The test will be performed by a qualified nurse or doctor who will take a small sample of cells for examination. This is a quick and simple process and usually only takes a few minutes.

The sample will be collected using a soft brush, which is then sent to the laboratory to be tested for HPV.

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

Does a smear test hurt?

Everyone’s experience of a smear test is different, but most women report no pain or mild discomfort. It’s important to know that there are lots of things that you can do to help make yourself feel more comfortable, such as breathing exercise to help you relax, playing your favourite music during the screen or asking for a smaller speculum (a small tube used to gently open the walls of the vagina). 

If you do find that it’s painful, remember that you can ask the nurse or doctor to stop at any point. It’s also good to tell the healthcare professional if you’re feeling nervous so they can try to make you feel more comfortable. 

How often should I have a smear test?

Women between the ages of 25 and 49 will be invited to attend a cervical screening every three years (you will usually receive a letter in the post from your GP). Women aged between 50-64 are invited once every five years, and women over 65 are only invited if one of their last three smear tests were abnormal.

If you’re under the age of 25 and have any concerns about your sexual health, HPV or your risk of developing cervical cancer, then you can speak to your GP to have your cervical screen sooner. 

You can also arrange more regular 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 happens if my results come back as abnormal?

For most women, it’s likely that your smear test result will come back as normal, which means that you don’t need any additional tests, but it’s important you still attend your future cervical screening appointments regularly as changes can develop between screens. 

If your results are abnormal, then you might be told that you have HPV or cell changes – but it’s important to know that an abnormal smear test doesn’t mean you have cancer. Depending on the result of your test, you may be advised to have a repeat smear in six months or have another test called a colposcopy, which takes a closer look at your cervix. This is usually done in hospital and your appointment will be no longer than 30 minutes.

During your colposcopy, if abnormal cells are found, they can be removed during the procedure for further examination.  

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.

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