Sometimes during a gynaecological check-up, your doctor will perform a cervical screening test, also known as the Papanicolaou test (often shortened to ‘Pap smear’). We all know it’s extremely important, but do you know what its main purpose is?
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What is cervical screening?
Cervical screening is a test carried out in order to study cells within a woman’s cervix. During the test, a spatula-type tool is introduced to gently collect cells from the cervix. This is completely painless.
Cervical screening is designed to detect vaginal infections and premalignant or malignant lesions, as well as cervical cancer. This allows for any abnormalities to be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, which in some cases can be life-saving.
When should I start having cervical screening tests?
It is recommend that you start having regular cervical screening tests once you are 21 years old. If you have been sexually active prior to turning 21, your doctor might recommend you have a cervical screening test earlier. This is because there are some forms of cancer associated with an infection caused human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted.
If you live in the UK and have an NHS number, you will be sent a letter inviting you to a cervical screening test once you turn 25. After your first test, it is best to repeat it every 3 years until the age of 50. Once you turn 50, it is best to repeat every 5 years. After the age of 65, it is only recommended you continue having cervical screening tests if 1 out of your previous 3 tests came back abnormal.
There are certain cases in which it’s recommended to have a cervical screening test once a year. These include:
- If you’re very sexually active.
- If you had an abnormal result on a previous cervical screening test.
- If you have genital warts as a result of HPV.
- If you have a history of multiple sexually transmitted infections.
Before, during and after your test
Is there anything I should keep in mind before my test?
- It is not recommended that you have a cervical screening test while you’re on your period, as it may make it more difficult to accurately interpret your cell sample.
- You should avoid engaging in sexual activity at least 2 days (48 hours) before your test.
- Try not to clean your vaginal area excessively on the day of your test.
- Avoid using treatments like ovules, creams or spermicides in the days prior to your test.
What’s involved in a cervical screening test?
When it comes to cervical screening tests, many women panic at the thought. As it’s a medical test, and we don’t know exactly how it’ll be carried out and what it consists of, it can be stressful.
During the appointment, your doctor will ask you to either lie down on a medical bed or sit in a special gynaecological examination chair. If you are sitting, you will be guided into the lithotomy position by your nurse or doctor, which is very common for this type of test. Once you are in a safe position, a speculum is inserted into the vagina. The speculum is a tube-shaped tool which is slowly opened inside the vaginal canal, allowing your nurse or doctor to examine the cervix. For some women, the speculum is the most dreaded element of a cervical screening and others can barely feel it. It all depends on your sensitivity. The good news is that the process is very quick, and if you do feel any discomfort, it is over within a minute.
What happens if my cervical screening result is abnormal?
If you live in the UK and you have your test through the NHS, then you will receive a letter with your test results. Your nurse or doctor will be able to tell you how long it will take and when to expect your results. If the result is ‘negative’, meaning no abnormal cells were found, it means that you do not have any vaginal infections and nothing was detected in your sample that’s a cause for concern. If your result is ‘positive’, it indicates that there were cells collected in your sample that are abnormal. It may warn us we might be dealing with a pre-cancerous condition or a vaginal infection, that could become dangerous.
In the case of an abnormal test result, your nurse, doctor or gynaecologist will advise what you should do next.
You should never be afraid of a cervical screening test, because they help detect and combat potentially dangerous cervical diseases. If it’s been a while since your last cervical screening test, we encourage you to get in touch with your gynaecologist!