Everything you need to know about smear tests

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Let’s face it, smear tests, or cervical screening tests, aren’t something that many women look forward to, but these checks are an essential part of looking after your health. If you’re yet to have your first cervical screening test, or you’ve been for these checks in the past but not fully understood what they’re about and why they’re so important, this guide is for you.

What is a smear test?

Cervical screening tests are designed to check the health of your cervix, which is the opening that leads from your vagina to your womb. Many people mistakenly think that the checks are intended to detect cancer. In fact, they’re meant to help prevent cancer from developing.

During a smear test, your cervix is swabbed and a small sample of cells is removed. This is then sent to a lab to be checked. If any abnormal changes to the cells are detected, this can be monitored or treated.


Why are they so important?

This type of screening is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. If abnormal cell changes go unnoticed in this part of your body, there is a risk they will turn into cancer. Smear tests help to prevent this.

Cervical screening also checks for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). This is the name for a common group of viruses that can be spread by skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. Most people get some form of HPV during their lives and often this is harmless. However, certain types of HPV can lead to cell changes that cause cancer. In fact, nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by an HPV infection.

If you’ve had sexual contact of any kind with a man or woman, there’s a chance you could develop cervical cancer related to HPV. While HPV should not cause any adverse health problems in most of the 8 out of 10 women that will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives, some types can cause genital warts or cancer. Even if you’ve had an HPV vaccine, it’s still important to get tested. Although this vaccine reduces your risk, it doesn’t protect you from all forms of the virus.


What happens during the test?

Although many women worry about going for these checks, they’re usually a very quick and easy process. The actual test should take less than 5 minutes, and your whole appointment will probably last no more than about 10 minutes. It’s usually carried out by a female nurse or doctor.

Before the test, you’ll have the chance to ask what will happen, and the nurse or doctor will be able to answer any questions you have.

To get ready for the smear, you’ll go behind a screen and undress from the waist down. You’ll then lie on the bed and cover your lower half with a sheet provided for you. Once you’re ready, the nurse or doctor will ask you to bend your legs, keeping your feet together and knees apart. When you’re in this position, they’ll gently insert a speculum into your vagina. They will then open the speculum so that they can see your cervix. Once they have a view of this area, they will take a small sample of cells using a soft brush. The speculum will then be closed and removed, and you’ll be left to get dressed.

It’s important to be aware that you’re in control of the process and can ask the nurse or doctor to stop at any point.

After the test, you might experience a little light bleeding. This is common and it should stop within a few hours. If it carries on or gets heavier, you should speak to your doctor.


What can I do to calm my nerves?

Most women find these tests to be smooth and painless, but if you’re worried about them, there are steps you can take to make them easier.  For example, you might feel more comfortable if you wear clothes that you can leave on during the test, like a skirt. You can also try breathing exercises to help you relax and not tense your muscles. Taking someone with you for support may also make the experience easier.

If you find the process uncomfortable, you could ask the nurse or doctor to use a smaller speculum, and ask her if you can try lying in a different position. Turning on your side with your knees bent and pulled to your chest might be better. You could also listen to music on headphones as a distraction while the test is going on.

Don’t be embarrassed to speak to the doctor or nurse carrying out the test about your nerves. Being honest with them will help them understand what support you may need.


When should you get a smear test?

All women between the ages of 25 and 64 should make sure they have regular smear tests. Up to the age of 50, it’s recommended you are retested every 3 years, and between 50 and 64, this decreases slightly to once every 5 years. Beyond 65, you’ll probably only be invited for one of these checks if any of your previous 3 smears showed an irregular result.

You might need more frequent checks if you’ve had treatment for an abnormal test in the past or you have a weakened immune system, for example if you are living with HIV, on chemotherapy, taking steroids or have had an organ transplant. This is because people with a compromised immune system have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer and other cervical diseases.


When can you expect your results, and what do they mean?

After a smear test, you will either be sent a letter or asked to call your doctor for the results. This usually happens within around 2 weeks, but it can sometimes take longer. Try not to worry if your results take a while to come through. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong. If you’ve waited longer than you expected, try calling your doctor to see if they’re able to provide an update. 

Most people get normal results from smear tests, meaning they don’t need to take any action until they’re invited to their next check. In some cases, the results are unclear - and usually if this happens, you will be asked to go back for a repeat test in a few months. If you get an abnormal result, don’t panic. Your results letter or the person you speak to over the phone will be able to tell you what your next steps are. Depending on the specific results, they may suggest no treatment, another screening test in a year or a different test called a colposcopy to examine your cervix.


Smear tests aren’t something to fear. In the vast majority of cases, they are straightforward to carry out and the results come back normal. And if you do ever get an abnormal result, the fact that you’ve attended regular check-ups means the cell changes should have been detected early and the appropriate steps can be taken to help keep you healthy.