What's the purpose of a cervical screening/smear test?
These screenings are done to prevent cervical cancer, and check cervical cells to identify any abnormal cells that might become cancerous in the future. Before these cells become cancer, they begin to change over time. There are a number of stages of these changes, and at each one they look different to normal, healthy cells. Most cases of cervical cancer can be prevented by identifying abnormal cells and treating and/or monitoring as appropriate.
To be clear, abnormal cells don't always develop into cervical cancer. Most don't, in fact. It just makes it more likely.
Will it hurt?
It can cause some discomfort, but exactly how much varies between people. If you feel any pain just let the doctor or nurse know and they may be able to reduce this. It can be difficult to relax, but if you're too tense the test may be more difficult to complete. The person performing the test will be able to give you some tips and advice to help you relax a bit, and many find that distraction is a great technique.
I'm x years old. Do I need a cervical screening/smear test?
Current guidance is that women aged 25-49 get tested every 3 years, and women aged 50-64 get tested every 5 years. Women over 65 generally only have tests if they've had a recent abnormal result or haven't had one since 50. You'll receive a letter in the post inviting you to book a cervical smear, and you might get this a few months before you turn 25. If you're younger than this, you won't routinely be invited for cervical screenings, but if you are concerned about your health you should still see a doctor about this.
I'm a virgin. Do I need a cervical screening/smear test?
Generally, no. The risk of cervical cancer is very low in women who have never had sex. As the risk is so low, women in this group may choose not to have cervical screening when invited, but if you're not currently in a sexual relationship but have been in the past, it's recommended that you have regular cervical screening.
What does the cervical screening/smear test involve?
First, as mentioned above, you'll receive a letter in the post inviting you to book an appointment. This letter should contain all the details you need to book, including any phone numbers and addresses you might need. If possible, try to book an appointment during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually 14 days from the start of your last period), as this can ensure a better sample of cells is taken. It's best to make an appointment for when you aren't on your period.
When you arrive for your test, you'll be asked to undress from the waist down and lie down on a bed/couch. You'll be given something to cover yourself with. If you're wearing a loose skirt, you may be able to keep this on. The doctor/nurse will ask you to position your legs in such a way that gives them access to your vagina.
The test itself only takes a few minutes, and involves inserting a speculum into the vagina to hold open the walls so that the doctor/nurse specialist can see the cervix (the entrance to the womb situated at the top of the vagina). A small brush-like swab then takes a small sample of cells from the cervix which are then sent to a lab. A scientist then looks at cells under a microscope to see if there are any abnormalities. If abnormalities are found, further testing may be done and depending on the cause, they may be treated or monitored.