This week is Cervical Screening Awareness week. For some women, getting their cervical smear done can feel daunting. 1 in 4 women don’t attend their cervical smear even though cervical smears can help prevent cervical cancer and save lives. We are on a mission to decrease the fear and answer some commonly asked questions.
What does a cervical smear check for?
A cervical smear looks at the health of the cells of the cervix, which is the neck of the womb at the top of the vagina. It looks to see if there are any abnormal changes in the cells.
In England, Scotland and Wales, cells are first checked to see if they are infected with certain types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). If present, the cells will be further examined. Some higher risk strands of HPV can lead to abnormal changes in the cells of your cervix- if left untreated, this could increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. In Northern Ireland the cells will be checked first for abnormal changes.
Changes in the cells of the cervix often don’t cause any symptoms so you won’t know you have it unless you are screened. Screening is a good way to detect changes early and help prevent the development of cervical cancer.
Who is offered a cervical smear?
Between the ages of 25 and 64 you will be offered regular screening. For 25–49-year-olds, this is every 3 years and for 50–64-year-olds this is every 5 years. If you are 65 and older, you will only be offered screening if one out of the last 3 results was abnormal. Some people may be offered cervical smears and screening more regularly, for example those living with HIV will be offered smears every 12 months.
How can you get HPV?
HPV is collection of common viruses that are spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital area. Most people will get HPV at some point in their lives. Skin-to-skin contact can include vaginal, anal or oral sex, sharing sex toys and skin-to-skin contact of the genital area.
Do I need to have a smear if I have had a HPV vaccine?
Yes – whilst the vaccine protects you against common HPV strains, it does not offer protection against all and you should still have a smear.
Will the smear hurt?
For most women, smears don’t hurt but may feel uncomfortable.
Some women may find smears painful due to a medical condition. This may include vaginismus (where the vagina tightens if you try to put something in it), vaginal dryness (e.g. menopausal changes), Female Genital Mutilation or Endometriosis. If you have worries about having a smear, speak to your practice nurse or doctor who will help to address your concerns.
Can I have a smear if I am on my period?
Being on your period could affect the results as blood can make it difficult to get a clear sample of cells. If possible, it’s best to reschedule when you aren’t bleeding.
Who doesn’t need a smear?
If you have never had any sexual contact or activity with a man or women (including sharing sex toys, genital touching, penetrative and oral sex) you will be at a very low risk of developing cervical cancer. Despite this you will still be invited to attend your cervical smear. Think of it as a general check-up.
If you have had a Total Hysterectomy, where the cervix is removed alongside the womb, you do not need to attend your smear test.
Can I have a smear test if I am pregnant?
If you are pregnant and due your smear, you will need to wait until after your baby has been born to get your smear done.
You still need to have a smear if:
- You have had the HPV vaccine
- You have had only ever had 1 sexual partner – you can still get HPV from your first encounter
- You are lesbian or bisexual
- You have had a subtotal hysterectomy where the cervix remains
- You are a trans man with a cervix