WUKA experts discuss smear tests, what it is, how often you need one and does it hurt. We will help you feel more comfortable about getting your smear test.
What is a Smear Test?
A smear test won’t check for cancer, but it will help to prevent the disease, by way of early detection of pre-cancerous cells. This is done by analysing a small sample of cervix tissue taken during the test, which is checked for specific types of human papillaomavirus (HPV).
If those specific types of HPV are found, your sample will be checked for changes in your cervix, and any changes that are found can then be treated before cancer develops.
If none of the specific types of HPV are found, you won’t need any further tests. You can read more about the test here, and watch the NHS video showing what happens during a smear test too.
Smear Test Results
Your doctor or nurse will let you know when to expect the results from your smear test when you go for your appointment. You’ll receive a letter advising of the result, and whether or not you’ll need to go for further treatment.
Its easy to say, but try not to worry if your letter seems to take a long time to arrive. You can always call your GP surgery to check, but in most cases a delay doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong.
Inadequate smear test result
Sometimes the results can be unclear, in which case you’ll be asked to book another appointment for three months time, to take the smear test again. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong- it just means that for some reason, your sample could not be tested correctly, or that the results were unclear.
No HPV detected in smear test
Most people will be advised that their test has revealed no HPV, otherwise known as a negative result. In this case, you are at a low risk of developing cervical cancer. Your next smear test will be due in around 3-5 years, at which time you’ll receive a letter inviting you to make an appointment.
HPV detected in smear test
In a small amount of cases, the results will show that HPV has been detected in your sample.
There are two different types of results showing a positive HPV result. Your doctor may advise that your sample is HPV positive but there are no abnormal cells. In this case, you will be invited for a repeat screening in one year’s time.
If your sample is HPV positive and abnormal cells are present, you’ll be asked to go for a colposcopy- a procedure to examine your cervix. This is similar to a smear test, but will take place in hospital. During the procedure, a speculum is inserted into your vagina to open it up. Your doctor will then use a microscope to look at your cervix and a sample may also be taken.
If no abnormal cells are found during the colposcopy, your doctor will tell you straight away. If a sample was taken, it can take up to 4-8 weeks to get the results. These results may show abnormal cells- this is not cancer, but there is a higher risk that these abnormal cells could turn into cancer if no further treatment is taken.
Your doctor will refer to your results as either CIN (cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia) or CGIN (cervical glandular intra-epithelial neoplasia.
There are three grades for CIN, CIN1, CIN2, and CIN3. CIN1 refers to a low risk for cancer, with no immediate treatment being required. CIN2 refers to a medium risk, and you may be offered a follow up colposcopy to check or to remove the abnormal cells. CIN3 refers to a high risk, and you’ll be offered treatment to remove the abnormal cells.
CGIN also refers to a high risk of developing cancer, and again you will be offered treatment to remove the abnormal cells.
Very rarely, the colposcopy will reveal cervical cancer. In this case, you will be referred to a team of specialists to discuss the next steps in your treatment.
If you have abnormal test results, there are organisations that can help you understand what’s going to happen next. The NHS has advice on who you can contact for support.
How Often Do You Have a Smear Test?
It’s really important to have regular smear tests so that any abnormal cells are picked up quickly and treatment can be taken to ensure that cancer does not develop. You’ll get a letter inviting you to go for cervical screening once you reach the age of 25, up until the age of 64.
In England, women aged between 25 and 49 are invited for a smear test every three years. From the ages of 50 to 64, you will be invited every five years. After the age of 65, you will only be invited for a screening if one of your last three tests were abnormal.
You don’t need to wait for another letter if you missed your last appointment. Call your GP surgery and make an appointment.
Women under the age of 25 aren’t invited for a smear test because cervical cancer is very rare in that age group. Likewise, women over the age of 65 are also not at risk.
However, if you’re concerned about symptoms such as vaginal bleeding between periods, changes to vaginal discharge, pain during sex or pain in your lower back and pelvis, then you should make an appointment to discuss this with your doctor.
How Painful is a Smear Test?
During a smear test, a speculum is inserted into your vagina to open it up. A soft brush is then inserted to brush away some cells from your cervix. The whole procedure should take no longer than five minutes from start to inside.
For some women it can feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. Let your doctor or nurse know if you’re experiencing pain. You can ask for the test to be stopped at any time.
What Should You Not Do Before a Smear Test?
You should book your smear test on a day where you are not having your period, and avoid using vaginal creams for at least two days prior.
How Do I Prepare for a Smear Test?
Although it’s not mandatory, most women will take a shower or wash before their smear test. There’s still no need to wash inside your vagina- so no douching!- and soap isn’t necessary either.
As you’ll be asked to undress your bottom half, its a good idea to wear a long skirt or jumper so that you only need to remove your underwear.
Take a friend with you if you’re feeling anxious or nervous, or ask for a chaperone or a female nurse to carry out the procedure.
Try to relax. If you’re tense, your muscles will be tighter and it will be harder to collect the cells during the test.