Why is cervical screening so important?
Cervical screening tests (formally known as smear tests) are a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. Detecting and removing these abnormal cervical cells prevents 75% of cervical cancers, and saves the lives of roughly 5,000 women each year.
How often do I need to get tested?
All women who are registered with a GP are invited for cervical screening:
Aged 25 to 49 – every 3 years
Aged 50 to 64 – every 5 years
Over 65 – only women who haven't been screened since age 50 or those who have recently had abnormal tests
If you're registered with a GP, you'll receive a letter through the post asking you to make an appointment for a cervical screening test. Screening is usually carried out by the practice nurse at your GP clinic.
What happens during the appointment?
Cervical screening tests usually take around five minutes to carry out. You'll be asked to undress from the waist down and lie back, although you can usually remain fully dressed if you're wearing a loose skirt. The doctor or nurse will then gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina – this holds the walls of the vagina open so the cervix can be seen. A small, soft brush will be used to gently collect some cells from the surface of your cervix.
Some women find the procedure a bit uncomfortable, but for most women it's not painful. If you find the test painful, tell the doctor or nurse as they may be able to reduce your discomfort. The cell sample is then sent off to a laboratory for analysis and you should receive the result within two weeks.
How likely is it that the results are abnormal?
Most women's test results show that everything is normal, but for around one in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Most of these changes won't lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own, but in some cases the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can't become cancerous.
How common is cervical cancer?
Every year in the UK, around 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35, so it's vital they get tested – yet they're one of the least likely age groups to attend screenings: over a third of 25-30-year-olds have delayed or skipped their appointments due to body image issues.
What causes it?
Cervical cancer is not thought to be hereditary. In 99.7% of cases, cervical cancers are caused by persistent infections with a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus transmitted through skin to skin contact in the genital area – around four out of five sexually active adults (80%) will be infected with some type of HPV in their lives. However, for the majority of women this will not result in cervical cancer; while HPV infection is common, cervical cancer is rare.
Can I be tested for HPV?
Yes, HPV testing has now been incorporated into the NHS cervical screening programme. If HPV is found in your sample, you’ll be referred for a colposcopy (a procedure to examine an illuminated, magnified view of the cervix and the tissues of the vagina) for further investigation and, if necessary, treatment. If no HPV is found, you'll carry on being routinely screened as normal.
When shouldn’t I get attend a screening appointment?
It’s best to make your cervical screening appointment for when you don’t have your period. If possible, try to book an appointment during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually 14 days from the start of your last period), as this can ensure a better sample of cells is taken. If you use a spermicide, a barrier method of contraception or a lubricant jelly, you shouldn't use these for 24 hours before the test, as the chemicals they contain may affect the results.
For more information, visit JosTrust.