If you are aged between 25 and 65 you have likely been contacted to set up a smear test, but what is it and why do we need them?
Vaginas: We all have them, but there’s still a stigma around discussing them and their health.
Painting your nails, doing the dishes or nipping out to buy a carton of milk all take longer than having a smear test. Five minutes is all you need to make sure everything is happy and healthy down below.
What is it?
A smear test, officially called a cervical screening test, is a test to make sure there are no abnormal cells in your cervix.
Your cervix is the area between your vagina and your womb.
The test is most commonly known for checking signs of cervical cancer. While this is true, it is also a check for the general health of your cervix.
Why 25 to 65?
You will only receive routine smear tests when you are aged between 25 and 65.
These are the years where abnormal cells are the most likely to be cause for concern.
Women under 25 often have abnormal cells that clear up on their own and are less likely to develop into cervical cancer.
If you are under 25 and have a history of cancer in your family, or over 65 and have recently had an abnormal smear test, you can request a smear test from you GP.
There are calls for the cervical screening age to be lowered to 18, but doctors say this could cause more harm than good.
What will happen?
If you are due a smear test you will be sent a letter in the post asking you to make an appointment at your GP practice. The nurse will carry out your smear test not your GP, so make sure you request the nurse when making your appointment.
It is best to make an appointment for a smear test around halfway through your menstrual cycle. This will provide the most accurate results.
When you arrive at your appointment you will be asked to undress from the waist down and lie down on a couch or bed.
The nurse will put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, this will hold the walls of your vagina open so that the cervix can be seen.
A small brush, a bit like an extravagant eyebrow spoolie, will then be used to collect cells from the cervix.
Some women find the experience embarrassing or uncomfortable, but it usually isn’t painful. If you attend a smear test and you experience pain it is important to inform the nurse as they may be able to relieve this.
How often does it happen?
Depending on your age, if you have normal results you will be asked to go to your GP practice for a smear test every three to five years.
If you are aged between 50 and 64 you will only have a smear test every five years.
What about the results?
Once you have had your smear tests, the cells will be sent to a lab for testing. You will normally receive your results within two weeks of your appointment.
If your results are abnormal your doctor may refer you for further tests or treatment, or suggest you receive a smear test more frequently.
If your results are normal you don’t have to do anything else, just wait for your next smear test to come around.
Smear tests can seem awkward and uncomfortable, but they are important to make sure everything is healthy down below.
Since smear tests were introduced in the 1980s the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by about 7% each year.
Early detection and treatment can prevent 75% of cancers developing.
For around one in 20 women the test shows abnormal changes in the cells, but most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer.
As of March 2018 only 72% of women aged 25 to 65 were attending their smear tests. Follow our Smear Test Series to learn more about one important life saving test.