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Women's Sexual Health » Smears

Cervical Screening

In the UK, the cervical screening saves around 5000 lives every year and has prevented 8 out of 10 cervical cancers developing.

What is cervical screening test?

A cervical screening test involves checking the cells from the cervix (neck of the womb). The test is also known as a smear test. It aims to pick up any changes which can be easily and effectively monitored or treated.

You can look and feel perfectly healthy and still have changes in your cervix. That is why it is so important to go for regular cervical screening tests.

Who needs a cervical screening test?

All women between the age of 25 and 64 years of age are invited to have a cervical screening test. If you have ever had sex with a man or a woman you should have a smear test. If you are not sure if you need a smear test talk to your doctor or nurse.

Routine tests are done every three years from the age of 25 and five yearly from age of 50 to 64. For some women tests may continue up to the age of 70.

Until June 2016 cervical screening started in Scotland at the age of 20. If a woman under the age of 25 (date of birth between 6th June 1991 and 6th June 1996) has already been invited for a test as part of the screening programme she will continue to be invited for screening even if her next smear is due before she reaches 25 years.

What causes changes in the cervix?

Most changes are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), This is a very common virus. It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people will catch the virus at some time in their lives. Many people will have HPV without knowing it because there are usually no symptoms. You can be exposed to HPV by being sexually intimate with another person who has the virus. 

I’ve had the HPV jab – do I still need to have a cervical screening test?

Yes. The vaccine protects against 2 of the 15 high risk types of HPV. These two types cause 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

I am a lesbian / bisexual woman – do I need to have a cervical screening test?

Most changes to the cervix are caused by HPV. These changes can lead to cervical cancer. Every woman is invited for a test because HPV is easily spread through intimate skin to skin contact by women or men. See the Cervical Screening Test: Information for Lesbian and Bisexual Women

What if I have never had sex before?

If you have never been sexually active, it is unlikely you will need a cervical screening test. If you have not had sex there is less risk of you having HPV – the virus which causes 99% if cases of cervical cancer.

Where do I go for my cervical screening test ?

Your cervical screening test is carried out at your GP surgery by a doctor or nurse.

What happens when cervical screening test is taken?

Make sure that you make your appointment for a day when you will not have your period, as the doctor or nurse that takes your test will need to see your cervix clearly.

You will be asked to remove your underwear and to lie down on an examination couch, and to bend your knees. The doctor or nurse will gently insert a plastic tube called a speculum into your vagina to hold it open so that your cervix can be seen. They will then brush cells from the cervix. The test takes around five minutes.

The cells will then be sent to a laboratory in Lanarkshire where they will be examined.

Will the test hurt?

Most women say that having a smear test does not hurt although some say it is uncomfortable. Some women are very anxious and embarrassed about having a smear test. This is completely understandable but remember that the doctor or nurse who takes your smear is used to taking smears and will try and make you feel as comfortable as possible. Please tell them if you have any worries or are nervous and they will try and help you relax.

Can the cervical screening test detect all changes?

The cervical screening programme saves lives and is the best way to reduce your chance of cervical cancer. Like other screening tests it is not foolproof. It may miss some changes so it is important to go for cervical screening every time you are invited. Changes can also happen between tests, so it is important that if you develop symptoms such as unusual discharge, bleeding between your periods or after sex or bleeding after the menopause you see your GP as soon as possible.

How will I get my result?

You will usually get your results in the post directly to your home address within four weeks. If you wish the results to be sent to another address, please let the person who carries out the test know. If you have not received your result within four weeks please contact the person who carried out your test.

What about my result?

For most people the result of the cervical smear test confirms that the cells that make up the cervix are normal. If this is the case you will automatically be invited to have another smear in three years if you are under the age of 50 and in five years if you are aged 50-64.

Sometime the laboratory finds that there are not enough cells present for them to examine your sample, this is known as an unsatisfactory result. This is nothing to worry about but it does mean that your smear will need to be repeated or you may need to have further investigations. Sometimes changes are detected. The letter will explain your results and what to do next.

Changes are detected in 1 in 10 women have a test, so it is quite common. It is important to follow up changes and treat them if necessary.

Sometimes very small or minor changes are detected. These can clear up on their own and do not require treatment. These changes will be monitored to check that they have cleared up. You will be invited to have another test in a few months’ time.

If changes are detected which require further investigation you will be referred for an examination to check whether the changes need monitored or treated. Your result letter will advise you of any referral that you will require to investigate the cells of your cervix further. Usually you will be sent an appointment to see someone for colposcopy. At colposcopy abnormal cells can be gently removed to prevent further problems later. See The Cervical Screening Test: Your results explained for more information about results that may need monitoring or treatment.

What happens to my cervical screening test sample?

Your smear will be kept for 10 years by the laboratory, so that earlier and later results can be compared if there are any concerns.

How is my screening information used?

All NHS staff are bound by a strict code of confidentiality. Information on cervical screening may be used for research purposes, clinical audit, education and training. This helps ensure that standards are being met and any improvements to the service are made. Any test samples and information used in this way will have personal details removed so they cannot be linking to a named individual.

You have the right not to agree to your information being shared. You also have the right to access any computer or written records relating to you personally. If you require any of your information please contact your local NHS data protection officer.

How can I reduce my risk of developing cervical cancer?

Using condoms can help reduce your risk of cervical cancer. If you smoke stopping smoking will also help reduce your risk. The best protection is having regular screening tests.