Everything You Want To Know About Cervical Smear Tests
This week marks Cervical Screening Awareness Week which is run by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. According to the trust this week’s aims are to
- Reduce confusion about HPV
- De-mystify cervical screening results
- Shout about the importance of cervical screening
This is needed now more than ever as cervical screening attendance is at a 19 year low in England and a 10 year low in Scotland and Wales. Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35 with 2 women a day dying of the disease in the UK. Regular cervical screenings can prevent up to 75% of instances of cervical cancers, saving 5000 lives per year.
Cervical screenings (more commonly known as smear tests) don't actually test for cancer but instead for HPV (Human Papillomavirus). HPV infections are very common and usually come from some form of sexual contact, but you can develop HPV without having sex or if you’ve had the same partner for many years. Most of the time HPV doesn’t cause any problems and doesn’t produce any symptoms so hardly anyone with it knows they do.
Some HPV types can cause genital warts or develop into cancer and this is what they are looking for during a screening. If picked up early these ‘high risk’ HPV infections can be treated before they develop into something more sinister and this is why regular screenings are so important.
What is a smear test?
If you weren't sure, a cervical screening test or a smear test is a quick test that is used to check on the health of your cervix. Anyone with a cervix aged 25 to 64 is invited by letter to a screening every few years.
A small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked for HPV, especially those ‘high risk’ types which have the potential to develop into cancer. If ‘high risk’ cells are not found then no further testing is required until your next routine screening in 3-5 years time. If ‘high risk’ cells are found then you may be invited for further testing.
What happens at a smear test ?
Now, every screening assistant will have their own unique style and language that they use so take this with a pinch of salt but the general test will be the same so this will give you a good idea of what will go down at your first screening.
The person performing the screening (possibly a nurse or medical practitioner) will normally chat you through the test so you know what will be happening. This is a good time to ask any questions or voice any concerns, they will be more than happy to answer them for you.
They will then give you some privacy to undress completely from the waist down, you should take your shoes off but socks are fine. They will then ask you to hop onto the bed and get comfy, usually lying on your back but some women prefer to lie on their side. Once you're on the bed you can cover yourself with the paper sheet provided. They will usually ask you to tuck your legs up towards your bottom and open your legs, the sheet can sit across your thighs. Once you're nice and comfy they will come round to the bedside to start the test.
When you are ready they will insert a clean speculum into your vagina with a little lubricant to help things along. This is a device that gently holds your vagina open so the test can be performed. They look a bit scary at first, a little like a bird's beak, but it shouldn't hurt when inserted. The speculum may feel a little uncomfortable or strange, but if it’s really hurting then let them know and they can swap it for a smaller speculum (this is something many women don’t know, even after getting smear tests for years).
With the speculum in place, they will then take a small brush and rotate it over your cervix to collect some cells. Again, this process shouldn’t be painful but might be uncomfortable or just feel a bit odd, many don’t feel anything.
And that's it! The brush will be removed and placed into a container, the speculum will be removed and you will be left to get dressed. The test itself will take less than 5 minutes with the whole appointment probably less than 10 minutes so no matter how silly or anxious you feel, it will all be over in a flash.
If at any point you don’t feel comfortable you can ask them to stop. You may also request a different member of staff if that would make you feel more relaxed. It’s normal to experience some slight bleeding or spotting after your test so you may want to take a panty liner or pad with you but this usually stops within a few hours.
You should receive your results by post within a couple of weeks.
What do my smear test results mean?
There are 3 types of cervical smear tests results:
Most tests will have a normal result, which means no further testing is needed and you will be invited for another screening 3-5 years later.
If your test results are inadequate or inconclusive you may be invited for another screening in 3 months time.
If your test comes back abnormal your letter will explain the next steps for you. This might be another cervical screening called a colposcopy.
An abnormal test result DOES NOT automatically equal cancer but it’s important further investigation is done so treatment can start if necessary.
Frequently asked questions
Q - “Can you get a smear test on your period?”
A - Not really, no. While it’s not dangerous or harmful you should avoid booking your smear at the same time as your period as it makes it hard to get a good test result and the test will likely have to be repeated. Try and book at a time you most likely won’t be getting your period.
Q - “Should you get a smear test when pregnant?”
A - If you are asked to come for a routine smear test while you are pregnant, you should put it off until after your baby is born. If it is not a routine smear, but a repeat smear after a previous abnormality, then you should have the smear to rule out any dangerous abnormalities.
Q - “Can I get a smear if I have a coil/IUD?”
A - Yes this should be fine! In fact if you’re looking to get a coil/IUD fitted then you can get both a coil and a smear at one appointment if you make the proper arrangements with your GP.
Cervical screenings are so important for keeping us safe and well and are the top way to prevent cervical cancer. They can be a scary thought for many, especially your first time but we hope you found this useful and informative so you feel more prepared heading in for your screening, whenever that may be.
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