Cervical smears (now referred to as cervical screening tests) are offered to women in order to detect changes to the cervical cells that could potentially lead on to cancer.
The test also often includes screening for the strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can also lead to the development of cancer if left untreated.
Note that the screening is not a test for cancer, it’s to check how healthy the cells of the cervix are. Around 1 in 20 women will show as having some abnormality but this doesn’t mean they’ll go on to develop cancer. Often the cells will go back to normal by themselves, or in some instances they may be removed to rule out the possibility of becoming cancerous down the line.
The NHS offer cervical screening to women from the age of 25 years up to 65 years of age, who are registered with a GP. The frequency of screening will vary according to your age, risk factors and previous results.
Screening by private health care providers may commence at an earlier age if clinically indicated or requested.
Screening can be accessed through your GP, Sexual Health Clinics and Family Planning Clinics. Screening provided by these providers are free and confidential.
Cervical screening can also be done on a private basis by private GPs, Marie Stopes Clinics and through some private healthcare providers, including Nuffield Health, BMI Healthcare and Bupa. Cost from these providers vary greatly and can be up to around £275 as you’re paying for the practitioner, test and the diagnostics.
Cervical screening wouldn’t be covered by a private healthcare policy. However if results from the screening indicated any concerns, a GP referral for a colposcopy or other follow-up investigation may well be covered, depending on your terms.
If you don’t have private health cover and the test results come back showing changes, your GP should refer you to a gynaecologist at your local NHS facility for further treatment and investigations.
The appointment usually lasts around 15 minutes, with the procedure itself taking just a matter of minutes. It may be carried out by a GP or practice nurse. You can request a female GP or nurse to take the sample; you may also have someone to accompany you during the test.
Before the test the GP or nurse will explain what will happen, answer any questions and make sure you’re happy to go ahead. They’ll then ask you to undress from the waist down and lie down on the examination couch, where you’ll be covered with a paper sheet.
You’ll either be asked to place your feet in stirrups or put your feet together and allow your knees to drop down on each side. You’ll probably also be told to relax at this point, which may seem unlikely but it does help reduce discomfort and can speed things up. Try taking long, deep breaths or find something in the examination room to focus your attention on.
When you’re ready the doctor or nurse will insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, usually with the aid of some lubricated jelly. The speculum is used to gently open up the vagina until the cervix can be seen. A specially designed brush is then used to collect cells from the cervix, which will be sent off to a laboratory for examination under a microscope.
The procedure shouldn’t hurt but can be uncomfortable. Occasionally it may cause spotting or bleeding, so it may be worth taking a sanitary towel or liner along just in case.
Useful sites and telephone numbers for screening facilities and information on tests are provided below.
Why is cervical screening important - AXA Health
Cervical screening test – NHS factsheet
Sexual health services – NHS choices
Cervical cancer – NHS factsheet
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