Cervical screening, commonly known as a smear test or Pap test, is a preventive health measure that involves the examination of cells from the cervix to identify any abnormalities. The test can detect early signs of cervical cancer, enabling early intervention and treatment, which significantly increases the chances of successful outcomes.
Typically, all women and people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 years old will be invited to regular cervical screening (you will receive a letter in the post inviting you to book in an appointment). The current NHS statistics show that approx. 30% between the ages of 25 and 64 in England have never been screened for cervical cancer or are overdue a test.
What is the importance of the smear test/cervical screening?
Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in the UK and the 4th most common cancer in women. Anyone with a cervix can get it including trans men and non-binary people.
Cervical cancer develops in a women’s cervix and almost all cervical cases are linked to infection with the human papillomaviruses (HPV), a very common virus transmitted through sexual contact. Most HPV infections resolve on their own and cause no symptoms however a persistent infection can cause cervical cancer in women.
Effective prevention of cervical cancer happens in two ways:
- Primary prevention via the HPV vaccination
- Secondary prevention by Cervical screening
What are the main symptoms of cervical cancer?
- Vaginal bleeding that’s unusual for you
- Pain during sex
- Changes in vaginal discharge
- Lower back pain
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
When detected early cervical cancer can be successfully treated.
What happens in a smear test?
The smear test is a very quick procedure (taking only a minute or two). A nurse will ask you to lie on an examination bed where they will use a speculum to enter your vagina and view your cervix, they then take a sample of cells from the cervix using a soft brush (smear test) and send the sample to the laboratory.
In England and Northern Ireland, you get invited for a smear test every 3 years if you aged between 25-49 years old. Above that age, the invitation is every 5 years. In Wales and Scotland, you get an invite every 5 years if you are aged 25-64 years old. Your doctor might recommend more frequent smear tests if there are other risk factors.
What do they look for during a smear test?
Your results should be ready within 4 weeks and you are sent the results by post. The laboratory looks for high-risk HPV or changes in cervical cells.
If you have HPV detected but no abnormal cells you will be invited for another smear test (your results letter will say when). This is to see if the infection has been cleared by your immune system naturally or if the infection is still there. If HPV is still detected the risk of developing abnormal cervical cells increases. You will be called to have another test in a year's time to see if there have been any changes - if you still have HPV but no abnormal cells then your doctor will refer you to have a colposcopy (procedure to visually examine the cervix using a colposcope) for more tests.
If you have HPV detected and mild changes - similar to above, you will have more tests to monitor whether the changes develop.
If you have HPV and moderate/severe changes you may need treatment - the colposcopy will confirm whether further treatment is needed. The doctor will take a biopsy of a small sample of the abnormal tissue that is then sent to a lab for further examination. Depending on this result you may need to have treatment to remove/destroy the abnormal cells (typical treatment being loop excision, laser therapy, cryotherapy, or cold coagulation.
The doctor should go through options with you and if you are ever uncertain our experts at myTamarin can help guide you and talk you through all processes giving you support in the whole journey.
Cervical Screening Awareness Week
Cervical Screening Awareness Week also focuses on promoting access to screening services, particularly for underserved communities.
Charities and companies such as Jo’s cervical cancer trust want to help reduce the impact of cervical cancer by promoting this week to ensure there is a reduction in health inequalities and to improve access to clinics.
Getting your smear test at the time of invitation will help identify any abnormalities early on, making treatment much easier in the long run.
If you have access to myTamarin through your employer and you any questions regarding cervical screening or want to discuss test results with one of our fertility and female health nurses we are always here to support.
Calling all those who have not had their cervical smear test in the last 3 years or if not ever – this is about your reproductive and gynaecological health – prioritise it and reach out if you have questions or are unsure.
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