Smear test

What is a smear test?

A smear test, also known as a cervical screening test, checks for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and any abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix. Having abnormal cells can sometimes develop into cervical cancer, so identifying and treating them early can help prevent this from happening.

Who needs to have a smear test?

The NHS will regularly send a letter inviting all women and anyone with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 to have a smear test.

How often will I need to have a smear test?

This depends on your age:

  • Under 25 — it is generally not recommended for anyone under the age of 25 to have a smear test. You will, however, probably get your first invitation up to six months before you turn 25.
  • 25 to 49 — you will be invited every three years
  • 50 to 64 — you will be invited every five years
  • 65 or older — you will no longer be invited unless one of your last three tests was abnormal, then you will need to be followed up

What does a smear test involve?

The test involves a specialist (usually a female nurse) taking a small sample of cells from your cervix. Before having the test, the nurse will explain what will happen and clear up any doubts you have. The test shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to complete.

During the test, you will need to undress from the waist down and lie down, on your back on an examination couch. Your knees should be bent and feet flat or your feet can be together and your knees should be apart. You may need to change position during the test. Then, the specialist will gently insert a special instrument (speculum) into your vagina to open it enough to see your cervix. They will then sweep a small, soft brush over the cervix to take some cells. Once it is complete and the speculum is removed, you will be able to get dressed.

The test shouldn’t hurt, but it can be uncomfortable. You can ask the specialist to stop at any time if it feels too uncomfortable for you.

What happens after the test?

After the test, the small brush is sent to a laboratory where your cells will be examined under a microscope.

When will I get the results?

Usually, women get their results by letter in 2-4 weeks. If you have waited longer than this, you should call your GP to inform them.

What do the results mean?

You results will be properly explained in the letter your receive. If your results were unclear, then you may need to do the test again in three months. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong, it just means the results were inadequate and a clear result was unable to be obtained. If human papillomavirus (HPV) is not found in your cells, it means your risk of developing cervical cancer is low. You will then be invited for screening again in around three years.

What happens if HPV is found in the sample?

If you receive an HPV positive result you may need to do another smear test in one year or undergo another type of test - a colposcopy - to further examine your cervix. There are two types of HPV positive results:

  • HPV positive with no abnormal cells — in this case, you would wait a year and have another smear test
  • HPV positive with abnormal cells — you will need to have a colposcopy

What does it mean if your smear test results are abnormal?

If you have an abnormal smear test result, this does not mean you have cancer; however, you do have some changes in the cells of your cervix which may need further treatment.

Read more about the types of abnormal results and treatments that you may need here.

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