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Smear tests: A step-by-step guide to what happens during a cervical screening appointment

The Independent logo The Independent 21/03/2019 Olivia Petter
a man and a woman standing in a room © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

Going for a cervical screening, more commonly known as a smear test, is an important and necessary experience for any woman, but there’s a lot of confusion over what it actually entails.

Some fear having to be examined by a male doctor while others worry about the results of the test. Meanwhile, a recent survey found that one in three women miss their appointments out of “embarrassment”.

In fact, attendance is currently at its lowest in 19 years in England, with a 10-year low in Scotland and Wales.

Like all medical tests, there is nothing to be embarrassed about during a cervical screening, especially as it is an incredibly simple, quick and fuss-free procedure.

Here’s everything you need to know about what happens during a smear test.

You will receive a letter

If you’re registered with a GP, you’ll receive a letter around the time of your 25th birthday informing you that it is time for your cervical screening appointment, explains Rebecca Shoosmith, head of support services at the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

Booking the appointment

Surfing the net © Getty Surfing the net You then just need to call up your local surgery and book the appointment for a time that’s convenient for you.

“If you have a regular menstrual cycle, then try not to book during your period as it could make it harder to get a clear sample of cells and don’t use spermicide or lube for 24 hours before as these could also affect the results,” Shoosmith tells The Independent.

You don't need to wear anything in particular for your appointment, just dress in an outfit you feel comfortable in on the day.

At the beginning of your appointment

“During your appointment, your nurse should explain a little more about cervical screening and it’s an opportunity for you to ask any questions that you might have,” says Shoosmith.

You should also see all of the equipment required laid out in front of you. This will include a speculum (a smooth tube-shaped tool made from either plastic or metal), lubrication (used to ease the speculum into the vagina smoothly), a small soft brush and a thinprep pot (which will be used as a container for your sample), explains Miss Meg Wilson, consultant at London Gynaecology.

Preparing for the smear test

Pap smear and Fecal test at a gynecologist's officeClick here to view my other Medical images © Getty Pap smear and Fecal test at a gynecologist's officeClick here to view my other Medical images Before the test, a nurse will give you some privacy to undress from the waist down.

They will also give you a sheet to cover yourself during the test if you like, Wilson tells The Independent. Next, you’ll be asked to lie down in a comfortable position. This can either be on your back but some women may choose to lie on their side.

The test itself

The nurse will let you know when the test is about to start. “When you’re ready, they will put a new and clean speculum into your vagina,” explains Shoosmith.

The speculum allows the nurse to gently open your vagina so that they can see your cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. It might feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt. Then, using the soft brush, they will quickly take a small sample of cells from your cervix by rotating it a few times before removing the speculum.

Your sample of cells will be placed into a small plastic container of liquid that will preserve them. This will then be sent off to a laboratory to be tested for abnormalities.

Tips if you experience any discomfort or are anxious about taking the test

“If at any point you feel uncomfortable then you can ask the nurse to stop, ask for a smaller speculum or for a nurse of a different gender,” adds Shoosmith.

“You can also bring someone you trust with you, this could be a friend, family member or someone else. It’s important to know that you are in control of your test and there are steps you can take to make it easier for you.”

What happens next?

I Female freelancer working at laptop on living room floor © Getty Female freelancer working at laptop on living room floor t's normal to experience some spotting or light bleeding after your screening, but this is nothing to worry about and should go away in a few hours, states the NHS website.

If you want to, you can wear a sanitary pad or panty-liner to help absorb the blood.

Getting the results

You should get your results within 14 days via a letter in the post. There are three types of cervical cancer screening results.

Normal

Most people will have a normal result, which means no further testing is needed and you will be invited for another screening three to five years later.

Inadequate

If the results are inconclusive, you might be asked to return for another test in three months.

Abnormal

If your sample came back with an abnormal result, your letter will explain what the next steps are. These could be: booking another test to look at your cervix, known as a colposcopy.

Abnormal cells, if left untreated, could become cancerous. However, they may also indicate HPV, which is a common virus acquired through any kind of sexual contact. It's worth noting that you can have HPV even if you have not been sexually active or had a new partner for many years.

You can read more about the different outcomes of cervical screenings and what they mean here.

For more information on smear tests you can call Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust free and confidential helpline on 0808 802 8000.

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