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  • Writer's pictureHealthwatch Reading

Cervical screening: all you need to know about smear tests

Cervical cancer screenings also known as smear tests save at least 2,000 lives every year in the UK. Here's what you should expect from your smear test and why these screenings are important.

One in 142 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime. A cervical cancer screening, better known as a smear test, can detect the development of abnormal cells in the cervix and prevent cervical cancer.

Who is eligible?

All women and people with a cervix are eligible for a cervical cancer screening. This includes Trans men and non-binary people who are assigned female at birth and registered with their GP as female.

Screenings will occur at regular intervals between the ages of 25 and 64. If you're 25 to 49, invites to screenings will be every three years. For those aged 50 to 64, this will be every five years.

What to expect

A smear test should take around five minutes, and the whole appointment should take at most ten minutes. A female GP or nurse will carry out the test, but if you have any concerns, contact your GP practice or sexual health clinic ahead of your appointment, and they will work with you. 

The smear test may feel uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. If you experience pain during the exam, inform the GP or nurse attending you immediately. 

Many people put off booking or attending their smear test because they're not sure what to expect. Healthcare professionals conducting the exam will ensure you feel comfortable and safe and will be happy to talk you through the procedure.

Talk to someone

A smear test is a very personal procedure, which can be off-putting for some. You can talk to someone about the test if you feel embarrassed or worried. Sometimes it's easier to speak to someone you don't know. Your GP or nurse can talk you through what to expect, addressing any concerns or worries about the test. 

You may want to contact an organisation that provides information and support about having cervical screening if you're unable to speak with your GP practice: 

  • Eve Appeal offers information and support for anyone affected by gynaecological cancers. It also provides information about cervical screening for transgender, non-binary and intersex people. Call their helpline on 0808 802 0019.

  • Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust (Jo's Trust) offers information and support for anyone affected by cervical cancer or abnormal cervical cell changes. Call their helpline on 0808 802 8000.

After the exam

Your GP practice or sexual health clinic will send your cell sample to a lab after the test. Ask the nurse or doctor when you will get your test results. Often, the most challenging part of cervical screening is waiting for results. It is natural to worry about this.

Usually, you will get a letter with the results within two to four weeks. If you are still waiting to hear something by six weeks, tell your GP so they can check for you.

After the exam, you may experience light vaginal bleeding for a day. If it continues longer than this or is particularly heavy, contact your GP or sexual health clinic immediately.

Where can I get a smear test?

Your GP practice can offer you an appointment for your smear test. You will be automatically invited to a test up to six months before you turn 25 or when your next one is due. 

However, the impact of the pandemic may mean that you are overdue an appointment or have yet to receive an invite. It's always worthwhile checking in with your GP.

You can also attend a sexual health clinic to have your smear test done if your GP practice cannot offer you an appointment. 

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