All you need to know about cervical screenings

Saurabh Phadnis Saurabh Phadnis Consultant Gynaecologist and Gynae-Oncologist
A cervical smear test is used to assess the health of a woman’s cervix and to help prevent cervical cancer. It's understandable to be nervous about your test or curious about what's involved, especially if you've never had a smear test before.

Keep reading to find out what your appointment will involve on the day and what your test results can show us about the health of your cervix.

What is a cervical smear test?

A cervical smear test uses a small brush to gently remove cells from the surface of the cervix and the area so they can be checked for the presence of Human Papillomavirus infection (HPV) afterwards.

If HPV is present, a further examination to check for cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer will be undertaken.

Possible results from your smear test

Possible results from a smear test can vary and include:

  • High-risk HPV not detected (considered a negative smear)
  • High-risk HPV detected but abnormal cells not found
  • High-risk HPV detected and abnormal cells are found (abnormal cells are graded as either borderline, low grade, moderate grade or severe grade. These are precancerous changes).

When should I get a cervical smear test?

If you’re a woman in the UK aged between 25 and 50, you will receive an automatic invitation to attend a smear test every 3 years and every 5 years if you are between the ages of 50 and 65.

You should also avoid having a cervical screening test during your menstrual cycle.

What to expect during your appointment

Usually, a nurse or doctor will take your cervical smear.

Before your examination, you will be asked to undress behind a screen from the waist down. You will be provided with a sheet to cover yourself and the nurse or doctor will ask you to lie back on a bed, usually with your legs bent, feet together, and knees apart.

Sometimes you may need to change position during the test. A smooth, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) is then inserted into your vagina (a small amount of lubricant may be used to make this easier). This helps visualize the cervix before a soft brush is used to take a small sample of cells from your cervix.

The speculum is then removed and you can get dressed. The examination may be uncomfortable but should not be painful. The entire cervical screening test itself should take no longer than 5 minutes, with the whole appointment taking around 10 minutes.

How accurate is the test?

We cannot entirely rely on any cancer screening method. A cervical screening exam however does guarantee a strong 90% accuracy when detecting HPV infection.

It is also important to bear in mind that a smear test doesn’t determine a cancer diagnostic and shouldn’t be carried out if you have obvious cancer symptoms or a lesion on the cervix.

When is the test not right for me?

There are some occasions when a cervical screening might not be suitable for you.

For example, if you have recently completed radiotherapy treatment for cervical cancer or underwent a hysterectomy where your cervix has been removed, a smear test is not a suitable option.

If you are curious about whether a smear test is right for you, talk to your GP to find out more.

Receiving a positive smear test result

If you receive an abnormal test result, your gynaecologist will refer you for a colonoscopy examination to double-check and to further investigate your results.

Colposcopy examinations involve examining the cervix with a special telescope and special stains. This examination is used for diagnosis of precancer of the cervix. A biopsy may also be necessary if the examination suggests precancerous changes to confirm the diagnosis.

Stigma around receiving a positive screening result

There is stigma associated with HPV infection and the causation of cervical cancer, however it is a misbelief that HPV infection and cervical cancer is commonly caused because of incautious sexual behaviour and having multiple sexual partners.

Additional resources

There is a lot to women’s health and we encourage you to take care of yours by attending your cervical screening test. 

If you would like to book a cervical screening test with us or have any related health concerns, visit our website at How you feel tomorrow starts today | Nuffield Health to find your local Nuffield Health hospital.

Last updated Wednesday 10 July 2024

First published on Wednesday 10 July 2024