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Cervical smear test

What is a cervical smear test?

A cervical smear test is a test of a sample of cells taken from a woman's cervix. It is not a test for cancer. It is used to detect abnormal cells that left untreated could develop into cervical cancer.

It is the best tool to detect precancerous conditions and hidden, small tumours that may lead to cervical cancer. If detected early, cervical cancer can be cured.

The NHS has cervical screening programmes in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure women are invited for regular smear tests.

Some of the age ranges and screening intervals are being adjusted, and across the UK, the first test will be at 25, then every three years until the age of 49. Between the ages of 50 to 64 the tests are every five years.

Currently the screening intervals are:

  • England & Northern Ireland – age 25-49 (3-yearly), age 50-64 (5-yearly)
  • Scotland – age 20-60 (3-yearly) – from 2015 this will change to age 25-49 (3-yearly), age 50-64 (5-yearly)
  • Wales – age 24 and 6 months - 49 (3-yearly) – age 50-64 (5-yearly)

You may be invited for screening more often depending on the results of earlier tests.

Women with certain risk factors, such as being HIV positive (carrying the virus that causes AIDS), a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, organ transplant, long-term corticosteroid use, or who have a history of diethylstilboestrol (DES) exposure before birth, may be screened more frequently.

How is a cervical smear test performed?

The cervical smear test is done during a pelvic examination. A doctor or practice nurse uses a device called a speculum to widen the opening of the vagina so that the cervix can be examined. A plastic spatula and small brush are used to collect cells from the cervix. After the cells are taken, they are placed into a solution. The solution is sent to a lab for testing.

Is the cervical smear test painful?

A cervical smear test is not painful, but the pelvic examination may be a little uncomfortable.

When will I know the results of the cervical smear test?

You should receive a letter with the result of your test within six weeks of being screened.

What do the results of a cervical smear test mean?

A normal cervical smear test means the cells from the cervix look normal. An abnormal cervical smear test means the cells do not look normal. Sometimes repeat cervical smear tests are needed. Different tests also may need to be done, such as a colposcopy (the use of a special microscope to examine the cervix and vagina). Cervical smear tests can occasionally show signs of infection but cannot be relied on to screen for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Other tests are necessary to determine the presence of an STI. There are several things you can do to help make the cervical smear test as accurate as possible. These include avoidance of sex and vaginal creams for 48 hours before the test.

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