Everything you need to know about cervical screenings

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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 screening? Then don’t panic because we’re here to put your mind at ease and explain how Evergreen Life can support you through the process. Firstly let's look at what a cervical screening actually is and why we need one.

What is a cervical screening test?

The cervix is the narrow passageway at the neck of the womb that joins it to the vagina. A cervical screening test, also known as a smear test is a method of detecting any abnormal cells on the cervix and for the presence of the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV, which can be an underlying cause of cervical cancer. It’s not a swab test for sexually transmitted diseases.

How cervical screening helps prevent cancer

Cervical screening helps catch and prevent any early signs of cancer. It also tests for a virus called high risk human papilloma virus (HPV). High risk HPV can cause cervical cells to become abnormal. Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to high risk HPV. Research suggests that the lives of as many as 2000 women are saved every year in England as a result of cervical screening.

What is HPV?

HPV is a type of virus that infects the skin and cells lining the inside of the body. It spreads through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area and sexual activity including oral and anal sex.

HPV is pretty common; Cancer research estimates it will effect around 8 out of ten people at some point in their life. It rarely shows symptoms and many people never know they had it and the infection will get better on its own. However it can lead to genital warts and sometimes- because it causes cell changes over time - cancer. As well as cervical cancer, the HPV virus has been linked to vaginal, vulval, penile and anal cancers. But these cancer types are rare.

In England, girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years are now offered HPV vaccination when they're in school Year 8. Two doses are needed. The 2nd dose is offered 6 to 24 months after the 1st dose. Since the HPV vaccination programme was introduced, infections of HPV types 16/18 in 16-21 year old women have reduced by 86% in England.

You should use a barrier protection such as a condom to reduce the risk of catching or passing on HPV.

Who is most at risk of developing cervical cancer?

As well as having the HPV virus, there are a number of other risk factors that mean you may be more likely to develop cervical cancer.

  • Age: Cervical cancer is more common in younger women. According to Cancer Research, more than half of the cervical cancer cases in the UK every year are in women under the age of 45.
  • Smoking. According to the NHS, women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than those who don’t. It’s thought the chemicals found in tobacco may have a damaging effect on the cervix.
  • Sex. If you don’t use a barrier contraception during sex, you are at risk of of catching the HPV virus.
  • Having a weakened immune system.
  • Multiple children. Women who’ve given birth to children seem to be at an increased risk of cervical cancer compared to those who haven't. Having children under the age of 17 also appears to increase risk. More research is needed to understand the link between childbirth and cervical cancer.

So what’s all the hoo-ha?

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 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 often do I need to attend cervical screening?

Smear tests are offered to women and people with a cervix from the age of 25 – 64 because most cervical cancers develop between those ages. If you are a transgender (trans) man registered with your GP as female, you will be invited for cervical screening.

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

It is recommended that you book your smear test when you are not having a period, such as in the middle of your cycle, to ensure a clear sample of cells.

How long does a cervical screening take?

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

What happens during cervical screening?

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 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?

The clinician carrying out your smear test should tell you when to expect your results letter.

Occasionally results can be inadequate, usually due to a technical problem, so you may have to repeat the smear test.

What do my smear test results mean?

If there are no issues, you’ll simply be called back in either 3 or 5 years depending on your age.

If your smear shows there aren’t any problems, but you do have the HPV virus, you’ll be asked to come for a smear sooner than usual, so the virus can be monitored.

If your smear shows any abnormal cells, you’ll be referred for a further screening procedure called a colposcopy. A specialist will take a close look at your cervix using a magnifying lens with a light called a colposcope and advise you if any further action is needed.

Do I need to go for a smear test if I’ve had the HPV vaccine?

Yes. The vaccine does not protect you from all types of HPV, so you still need to go for a smear test.

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

The HPV virus is a sexually transmitted disease. So, according to the NHS, if you’ve never been sexually active then you can decide not to have the cervical screening test. But it’s important to use a barrier contraception like a condom if you do decide to have sex.

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.

How can the Evergreen Life app help manage Cervical screening?

Downloading the Evergreen Life app and linking it to your GP record can help you manage the cervical screening in a few ways.

  • If you’ve been invited for a smear at your GP’s you should be able to be able to book an appointment via the app.
  • Then, when the results come in, you should be able to view these in the app.
  • You can also store a complete record of all your smear tests in the app.
Written by
Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Meet Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA, Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years' experience as a GP.

Article updated:
June 10, 2021
Reviewed by:
Dr James Harmsworth King MBBS MPhil PhD
Biotechnology & Medical Expert