Everything you need to know about cervical screenings

Are you due a cervical screening or have been avoiding having one because you’re embarrassed or have heard some horror story about what goes on during a smear test? Then don’t panic because we’re here to put your mind at ease and the rumours to bed. Firstly let's look at what a cervical screening actually is and why we need one.

What is a cervical screening test?

A cervical screening test is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. It’s not a sexually transmitted disease (STD) test.

Why do I need a cervical screening test?

The cervical screening test will check for any abnormal cell changes. Abnormal cell changes on the cervix could potentially be a sign of cervical cancer. The test helps catch and prevent any early signs of cancer. Research also suggests that as many as 2000 women are saved every year in England as a result.

Simple, right? Well actually no, because according to a report by the BBC, about three million women across England have not had a smear test for at least three-and-a-half years and screening rates are at their lowest for two decades.

Even more shockingly, a total of 220,000 British women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year and there were 854 deaths from cervical cancer in England in 2016.

So what’s all the hoo-ha?

So if cervical screenings are so important then why are so many women not attending? Well according to a survey of 2,017 women by the charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, young women were embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape (35%), the appearance of their vulva (34%) and concerns over smell (38%).

We understand that it's a bit embarrassing but it's over in a matter of minutes and could be the difference between life and death. To help you feel a little less self conscious and more prepared, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions about cervical screenings.

Cervical Screening FAQs

How do I know when I need a cervical screening?

This might be a day you’ve been dreading and thought would never come but when you hit 25 you’ll be invited for a cervical screening test with your GP by letter. If it makes you feel any better imagine it’s your acceptance letter to Hogwarts or that you’ve been invited to join a secret society!

You’ll only receive a letter if you’re registered with your local GP but don’t panic if you don’t receive one, as you can just call and book an appointment.

You’ll receive a letter every 3 years between the age 25 and 49 and every 5 years between the age 50 and 64. The letter will contain all the contact information you’ll need to make the appointment.

How do I prepare for a cervical screening?

Unlike your uni exams you don’t need to do any revision, but it is recommended to go in the middle of your cycle to avoid being on your period.

How long does a smear test take?

The screening usually takes around 5 minutes, so will be over before you know it.

What happens during a smear test?

The cervical screening is usually carried out by the practice nurse and you can request a female doctor or nurse.

They’ll ask you to undress from the waist down and lay on the bed. We get it, the last thing you want to do is get your bits out for a stranger but there’s no need to be embarrassed. Chances are, they’ve done this test a thousand times and seen more vaginas than you’ve had hot dinners.

The nurse will gently put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum may then be opened slightly to hold the walls of the vagina open so the cervix can be seen.

Some women can find this uncomfortable but it shouldn’t be painful. If you feel a little embarrassed, try and think about something else, like the chocolatey treat you’re going to reward yourself with after the appointment.

A small soft brush will then be used to gently collect some cells from the surface of your cervix. The cell sample is then sent off to a laboratory for analysis.

When will I get my cervical screening results back?

You should receive your results back in the post within 14 days. However it's worth asking this question in your appointment as some GPs require patients to phone to find out their results.

What do my smear test results mean?


A normal test result means that no abnormal cell changes were found, so no action is required until your next screening, phewww!


You may be asked to have a second test because either not enough cells were collected or the cells couldn’t be seen clearly. You’ll be asked to go back for another test roughly 3 months later. Annoying as this is, at least you’ll know what to expect second time around.


If you have abnormal results it doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer or that you’ll get cancer, it just means that you have abnormal cell changes. This is called dyskaryosis and it may even go away on its own.

If you have low grade dyskaryosis then your sample will be tested for HPV. If HPV isn’t found then you are very unlikely to be at risk of cervical cancer and won’t have to have another test until your next screening. If HPV is found you’ll be offered an examination, which looks at the cervix more closely, called colposcopy.

If you have high grade dyskaryosis you’ll also be offered a colposcopy to check the changes in your cervical cells. Don’t freak out though, this still doesn’t mean you have cancer or that you’ll get cancer. For more information on the results take a look here or speak to your GP.

Do you need to go for a smear test if you’re a virgin?

According to the NHS, if you’ve never been sexually active then you can decide not to have the cervical screening test. If you’re not sure what to do then have a chat with your GP.

Can I still go for a cervical screening if I’m pregnant?

It’s recommended that you don’t have a cervical screening test while you’re pregnant because the results will be harder to read. However if you’re planning your pregnancy it's a good idea to check with your GP that you’re up-to-date so any tests or treatment can be arranged around the pregnancy.

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