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Cervical smear test & cervical screening: 12 frequently asked questions

1. What is a cervical smear test?

A cervical smear test is a test of a sample taken from a woman's cervix. It is not a test for cancer

The cervical screening test is used to detect abnormal cells that left untreated could develop into cervical cancer.

If detected early, cervical cancer can be cured.

2. When will I be invited for cervical screening?

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

Currently the screening intervals are:

  • England – ages 25 to 49 – every three years, 50 to 64 – every five years
  • Scotland – ages 25 to- 49 every three years, 50 to 64 every five years
  • Wales – ages 25 to 49 every three years, 50 to 64 every five years
  • Northern Ireland  – ages 25 to 49 – every three years, 50 to 64 – every five years

You may be invited for screening after 64 depending on individual risks or 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.

In the summer of 2016, the NHS cervical screening programme in England announced it is changing from routine cervical smear testing and looking for changes in the cervical cells to testing for HPV first.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) - so experts hope that identifying this risk earlier will lead to more accurate screening.

In the new testing programme, women will be invited for testing in the same way, but samples taken will be tested for HPV first using a viral DNA test.

If HPV is detected, abnormal cells are more likely to be present, and women will be offered a cervical smear test and monitored closely for any abnormal cells developing.

If the HPV test is negative, there will be less anxiety for women and a lower risk of over-treatment.

3. 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 small plastic brush is 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.

4. Is the cervical smear test painful?

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

5. 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.

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