According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers from developing.
Although the NHS has taken to offering cervical screenings as a choice, it’s worth remembering that they tell women if they have pre-cancerous cells that have the potential to develop into a tumour.
What happens during a smear test? When’s the best time to get one? Is it painful? Here’s everything you need to know.
How do I get a smear test appointment?
Women who are aged between 25 and 64 and who are registered with a GP will automatically receive an invitation to a cervical screening.
If you’ve moved house and not updated your address with your GP, you should tell them as soon as possible so that letters can be sent to your new home.
When is the best time to get one?
The best time to get a cervical screening is in the middle of your menstrual cycle – in other words, halfway between one period and the next.
This allows for the best specimen to be obtained, which will give the most accurate results.
Most GP surgeries ask women to book their test themselves, so it’s worth taking your menstrual cycle into consideration before making an appointment.
Accurate results can’t be obtained if you’re on your period, although if bleeding is light enough, tests may be carried out in some instances.
What happens during a smear test?
The nurse should explain what they’re about to do, and allow time for you to ask questions or raise any concerns.
You will be asked to undress from the waist down, then lie on your back on an examination bed, with your legs bent up.
The nurse will place a paper sheet over the lower half of your body.
An instrument called a speculum will then be placed into your vagina, and gently opened inside. This allows the nurse to see your cervix.
Sometimes lubricant is used on the speculum, which allows for easier insertion.
A sample of cells is taken from the cervix with a specially designed brush.
The nurse will take this sample from the area of the cervix called the transformation zone.
The sample is placed in a vial of liquid to help preserve them – they are then looked at in a laboratory to check for any abnormalities.
Is it painful?
Smear tests are not painful for most women – it may feel slightly uncomfortable, though.
If you do experience any pain, let the doctor or nurse know.
You may experience some light bleeding (spotting) for a day after the procedure.
Do I need screening if I’ve never had sex?
If a woman has not had sex, the risk of developing cervical cancer is very low.
However, the risk is not non-existent – just low.
This can be discussed with the smear taker.
Should I go for a screening if I’m pregnant?
Pregnant women should wait until 12 weeks after they’ve given birth before they go for a smear test.
I have a family history of cancer – should I be screened more often?
Unlike some other cancers, there’s no known family link for cervical cancer – so more frequent smear tests aren’t necessary.
Do I still need to be screened if I’ve only had sex with women?
HPV, the virus which causes cervical cancer, can be transmitted between women.
It’s passed through bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact, like other sexually transmitted infections.
Therefore it’s still advised that you get screened.
Why are smear tests only offered to women aged 25 and over?
Dr Anne Mackie, Public Health England’s Director of Screening, said: ‘The cervical screening programme does not screen women under the age of 25.
‘Cervical cancer in women below this age is very rare.
‘Younger women often undergo natural and harmless changes in the cervix that screening would identify as cervical abnormalities, and in most cases these abnormalities resolve themselves without any need for treatment.’
Are there any exceptions to this rule?
According to guidelines from The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, a referral for women outside the age restrictions who is suspected to have cervical cancer would be considered if they were examined and the appearance of their cervix was consistent with cervical cancer.
To meet this criteria, the cervix would have characteristics that could be caused by many things, including cancer.
If such a referral were carried out, the woman would receive an appointment within two weeks.
Why do women over the age of 64 no longer need smear tests?
Women who have had normal smears until this age are very unlikely to develop cervical cancer at this stage.
At this age, minor changes due to low hormone levels can be found, which could lead to unnecessary further investigations.
Although older women can get cervical cancer, it’s often in women who haven’t had a screening before, or who haven’t had enough in the past.
Any unusual bleeding or discharge should be reported to your GP, even if all of your past smear tests have come out normal.