This blog, written by our information development nurse Teri, marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week by explaining what cervical screening is and why it is important.
Many people would prefer to avoid going to their GP or health clinic. It can be difficult for some to take up the offer of a health screening test, particularly cervical screening, as the thought of it can feel embarrassing. If you are put off going for cervical screening, knowing why it’s important and what to expect might make it a bit easier.
What is cervical screening?
Cervical screening is a test that looks for abnormal changes to the cells in the cervix. Cervical screening is also known as a smear test. It is not a test for cancer.
The cervix is the lower part of the womb, also known as the neck of the womb. It is part of the female reproductive system, which includes the vagina, womb, cervix and ovaries.
Why is cervical screening offered?
Abnormal cell changes in the cervix are common and often improve naturally. But sometimes they can develop into cancer of the cervix. Abnormal cell changes do not cause symptoms so, you will not know if you are affected unless you have cervical screening.
Most cervical cell changes and cervical cancers are caused by infection with a very common virus called HPV. HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, so anyone having any kind of sex is at risk of getting it. Cervical screening may also check for some types of HPV.
Cervical screening saves thousands of lives every year in the UK. It finds any abnormal cell changes and identifies the changes that are most likely to become cancer. These cells can then be treated. This is an effective way of preventing cervical cancer.
Who is offered cervical screening?
The NHS offers regular cervical screening to women aged 25 to 64 who are registered with a GP. This test is important to anyone in this age group who:
- has a cervix
- and has ever been sexually active with a man or woman.
If you are a trans man and still have a cervix, you should have screening. You may not be sent an invitation if you are registered as male with your GP. Let your GP know if you want to have cervical screening. They can arrange regular tests for you.
If you are pregnant, you can usually delay having your screening test.
How regularly is screening offered?
Invitations are sent every 3 years between the ages of 25 and 49, and every 5 years between the ages of 50 and 64.
What happens when you go for cervical screening?
You can usually have the test done by a nurse or doctor at you GP surgery or sexual health clinic. It should take less than 5 minutes.
If you have any questions or worries about the test, let your doctor or nurse know. They will do their best to put you at ease.
When you are ready, you undress from the waist down. You will be asked to lie on your back on the examination couch with your knees bent and feet flat on the couch, or with your knees apart and feet together. The nurse or doctor gently puts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. They use this to open the vagina just enough to see your cervix. They then sweep a small soft plastic brush over the cervix to take the sample of cells.
This should not hurt but may be uncomfortable, particularly if you are very tense. But taking some slow deep breaths can help you relax. You may have some very light vaginal bleeding for a day after.
You will usually get a letter within 2 weeks but if you don’t hear anything within 6 weeks, you can ask the surgery or clinic to check for you. Most women have a normal result, which means you will not need to have another test for 3 to 5 years, depending on your age.
If your cervical screening result is abnormal, this does not mean you have cancer. Cell changes often go back to normal by themselves. You may need another screening test, or a test called a colposcopy that checks the abnormal cells in the cervix in more detail. Most people who have an abnormal test result will not develop cervical cancer. Screening finds the small number of people who need treatment to prevent cancer.
After your test
If you have regular screening, you should still let your GP know if you develop symptoms between your tests. This might be any abnormal changes, such as:
- abnormal vaginal bleeding
- unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge
- pain after sex.
These symptoms may be caused by other conditions but it’s important to see your GP or practice nurse to get them checked out.
You can read more about cervical screening in our booklet, Understanding cervical screening and CIN. There is also more information on our website.
If you're worried about anything, or have questions, you might want to call our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 (7 days a week, 8am to 8pm).
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