Cervical screening

We get why displaying your nether regions to a stranger might rank pretty highly on the embarrassment-o-meter, but we want to encourage you to throw your modesty aside and tick this life-saving test off your to-do list today.

Sometimes called a Smear Test, Pap Smear or Pap Test - cervical screening is a 5-minute test. It stops up to 75% of all cervical cancer from developing and saves an amazing 5000 lives a year in the UK.

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a test to check if your cervix is infected by HPV (the human papillomavirus) and if there are any abnormal changes to the cells of your cervix caused by the virus.

Catching abnormal changes early means that they can be treated, preventing these cells from becoming cancerous.

If you’re a GP at Hand patient, and you think you’re due a smear test, call us now on 0330 8082217

You can choose daytime, evening or weekend appointments for your screening, at any of our clinics.

What is the cervix?

You’re not alone if you haven’t a clue what the cervix is.

A survey by Jo’s Trust found that almost half of women do not know that the cervix is the neck of the womb and 1 in 6 couldn’t name a single function of the cervix.

The cervix is found inside the vagina and it has the following roles:

  • It is the passageway between your womb and vagina
  • Your cervix opens slightly to allow menstrual blood out every time you have a period
  • The cervix is also responsible for keeping a baby inside your womb. It opens when giving birth through your vagina

What happens on the day

On the day of your cervical screening the nurse will explain the test. She will then ask you to go behind a privacy screen and undress from the waist down, removing trousers and underwear. If wearing a skirt or dress, you can keep these on and just roll them up.

There is usually a paper sheet or towel to cover yourself with from the waist down. If there isn’t and you would like one, don’t be shy to ask or feel free to take a scarf/pashmina with you on the day.

  1. The nurse will come over when you are ready. She'll ask you to bend your knees, bring your heels towards your bottom with feet together and then relax your knees apart to as far as is comfortable for you. If you are uncomfortable in this position - let her know and she can suggest another position.
  2. Next, she will switch on a light and, with medical gloves on, she’ll gently insert a plastic instrument called a speculum. The speculum helps her to see your cervix. You might feel some pressure when the speculum opens but this shouldn’t hurt.
  3. The nurse then passes a little brush through the speculum. She brushes it gently in circles against your cervix. This is how the sample is taken. It does not hurt but can feel a bit tickly.
  4. The speculum is gently closed and removed. This is the end of the examination and you can get dressed.

The brush is then placed into a liquid solution. This is shaken to release the cervical cells into the specimen pot. The pot is sent off to the lab to be examined under a microscope.

Your result will be posted to you within 2 weeks. If you do not receive your result, give your GP surgery a ring.

What your results mean

The test first checks for HPV infection. If you test positive for HPV - the same sample will then be looked at under a microscope for abnormal cell changes.

You will receive one of the following results:

- HPV negative or HPV not found

Most people will receive this result. You will be invited for screening again in 3 to 5 years (depending on your age).

- HPV positive but no abnormal cells

This result means that there is HPV in the cells of your cervix but when those cells were looked at under a microscope- they did not look abnormal.

80% of us will be infected by HPV at some point in our lives. Most people clear the infection off naturally, so you will be asked to come back again (usually within a year) to check if the HPV is still there and whether the cells look abnormal or not.

- HPV positive and abnormal cells found

This result means that HPV was found and there are also changes to the cells of your cervix.

You will be invited to have a colposcopy. This is a test that feels similar to cervical screening, however the healthcare professional examining you will also use a special microscope to look more closely at your cervix.

Abnormal cells can then be treated, preventing them from turning into cancer.

Who is eligible for cervical screening?

This screening is offered free of charge on the NHS and for GP at Hand patients with a cervix, aged 25 to 64.

In the UK, you are automatically invited to attend cervical screening:

  • For the first time around the age of 25
  • Every 3 years thereafter, until age 49
  • Every 5 years between age 50 and 64

What's next?

You will receive a letter or email inviting you to attend your cervical screening. When you call to book an appointment, ideally try to select a day that you are unlikely to be on your period. (Being on your period can affect the sample collected from the cervix.)

These appointments are usually with the nurse. She is someone who will have seen more vaginas and pubic hair styles than you could ever imagine. She'll also be aware that some feel anxious or embarrassed attending for cervical screening and will be both professional and reassuring.

Get Started with GP at Hand

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do to make the test more comfortable?

Cervical screening is usually not painful and rarely uncomfortable, however there are a few things you can do that can help make the process as comfortable as possible. These include:

Taking slow and deep breaths

Thinking about relaxing your bottom muscles down into the bed

Wearing a skirt or long top makes some people feel more comfortable as you can keep those on when having your test

Having a wee beforehand will help if you have a full bladder

Tell the nurse if you are worried or feel any discomfort as she will be able to suggest ways to make it better

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer doesn’t always present with obvious symptoms, which is why screening is so important. Symptoms include:

Abnormal vaginal bleeding during or after sex, or between periods

Vaginal bleeding after you have been through the menopause

Unusual vaginal discharge

Discomfort or pain during sex

Low back pain

I’m pregnant. Should I still go for cervical screening?

If you’ve had abnormal results in the past and are due a repeat test when pregnant, speak to your GP or midwife about this as they will likely recommend you go ahead and have a repeat test in the first trimester.

Although cervical screening is safe in pregnancy, it is often recommended that you delay a routine smear test until 3 months after you have had your baby. This is because a cervical screening result might be more difficult to interpret when someone is pregnant.

I’ve had the HPV vaccine, does this mean I don’t need smear tests?

You still need to have smear tests if you have had the (Human Papillomavirus) HPV vaccine.

HPV infection is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers but the HPV vaccine currently being used does not vaccinate against all of the HPV subtypes that can cause cervical cancer.

How do I book a cervical screening appointment?

You can book an appointment by contacting your GP surgery.

GP at Hand patients can call 0330 8082217 to book an appointment with a nurse at one of our 7 London clinics or our Birmingham clinics.