Smear Fear: What To Expect At Your Cervical Screening

So you’ve had the dreaded letter inviting you to your cervical screening exam? Never fear! Whether it’s been a few years since your last exam, or you’re brand new to this medical encounter, we’re breaking down exactly what you can expect at a cervical screening exam. Let’s get to it!

What is a smear test?

Cervical screening, otherwise known as a smear test, is a short exam which checks the health of your cervix. It’s nothing to worry about, but many women put off going for years due to fear of pain, embarrassment, or because they don’t feel it necessary. It is important that you DO NOT avoid your cervical screening exam for any reason. The test is a preventative measure to catch any signs of cervical cancer as early as possible, and anyone with a cervix in the UK should get regular smear tests from age 25 onwards. 

What are they looking for?

The nurse or doctor conducting your test will take a small sample of cells from your cervix to check for any abnormal changes. If these are discovered early, they can be monitored or treated to prevent them turning into cervical cancer later. They will also be checking for human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV.

What’s HPV?

HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection from certain types of HPV, so your smear test helps identify any cells that need treatment.

You can get HPV from a sexual partner from any kind of contact with the genital area, not just from penetrative sex, and most people will get some type of HPV during their lives, so don’t worry if you are found to have this.

What happens at the appointment?

Cervical screening exams are usually done by a female nurse or doctor, but if not, remember you can request a female doctor at any time, to make you feel more comfortable. They can answer any questions you have before they begin. If you want to see what happens during a test,this short animation on the NHS website is helpful.

Firstly, you’ll be asked to undress from the waist down behind a screen. This may feel a bit awkward, but you'll be given a sheet to put over you.

Next, you’ll lie back on a bed, usually with your legs bent, and feet positioned close together, letting your knees fall apart. Being so exposed can feel uncomfortable, but try to remember that your nurse will have seen many, many vaginas before yours!

They will insert a tube-shaped tool called a speculum into your vagina, probably using a small amount of lubricant to allow it to slide in easily. When they open the speculum, it usually feels much wider than a tampon, but shouldn’t be painful. If you do feel pain here, you can ask your nurse to use a smaller speculum size.

Once the speculum is inserted, your cervix will be visible and ready for the test to begin. A small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix using a soft brush. Though the instrument used is soft to the touch, the very act of anything touching your cervix can feel unpleasant, so you may wish to take some deep breaths during this part, which should only take a few minutes at the most, if not seconds. 

Remember: You can ask the nurse to stop at any time if you feel uncomfortable or experience any pain, and begin again when you feel more relaxed.

Once the nurse has collected the cells, the speculum is removed and you are free! You will probably be given some tissue to wipe away any remaining lubricant, and then you can re-dress behind the screen.

Some things you may want to do before and during the test to make it easier:

  • Wear something long that can be pulled up, such as a skirt or a long top
  • Bring along a friend or partner who can put your mind at ease
  • Practice some breathing exercises you can use during the test
  • Bring something to read or listen to, to take your mind off of what’s going on
  • Don’t be afraid to tell the nurse if you feel embarrassed, as they are usually very understanding and will help you through the process

What happens after the test?

The hard part is over! You may experience some gentle cramping and light spotting in the hours after your cervical screening test. This is very normal and nothing to worry about. If the bleeding becomes heavy, speak to your GP to make sure everything is as it should be.

Normally you will receive the results of your test via letter around 2 weeks after your appointment. These can sometimes take longer to get to you, so don’t worry if this happens. If you have any concerns, call your GP.

How often should you get a smear test?

  • Regularity of appointments depends on your age:
  • Under 25: first invite 6 months before you turn 25
  • 25+: every 3 years until you turn 50
  • 50+: every 5 years until you turn 64
  • 64+: screening by invite, only if one of your last 3 tests was abnormal

Let’s face it, nobody enjoys a cervical screening test! They can feel embarrassing, invasive, and very uncomfortable, but they are necessary. Your health is important, and the benefits of catching any abnormal cells early far, far outweigh the small inconvenience of a cervical screening exam. 

Even if you feel you have waited too long after being invited to book your screening, know that it’s never too late. If you are in any doubt, call your GP to find out when you should next be seen.

Do you have an upcoming cervical screening exam? Worried about what’s in store? Chat to us over on Instagram @itsyoppie and we can answer any questions you may have!