Cervical Screening Awareness Week
“Why should I have a smear test?”
A smear test takes just minutes and could be a lifesaver. So do not delay having one.
Failing to attend a smear test is the biggest risk factor in developing cervical cancer. Most of the 750 women that die from cervical cancer every year in England failed to attend a smear test.
The NHS ‘call and recall’ system invites patients for their first test at the age of 25 and then every three years until the age of 50. Thereafter a smear is performed every five years till the age of 64.
Only women who have not been screened since the age of 50 or have had a recent abnormal smear are offered testing after the age of 65. Women who have not had a recent test may be offered one when they attend their GP or family planning clinic on another matter.
To get free cervical screening on the NHS, you need to be aged between 25 and 64 and registered with a GP.
Women under the age of 25 are not routinely offered cervical smear tests on the NHS, because abnormal results that are not cancerous occur more often under the age of 25. A woman can however chose to pay for a smear test privately.
During a smear test, a doctor inserts a plastic or metal instrument (called a speculum) gently into the vagina to expose the cervix (neck of the womb) and obtains a sample of cells using a small soft brush. Most women find the procedure only mildly uncomfortable.
The sample of cells is placed in a plastic container with fluid for analysis under the microscope. This method has significantly reduced the number of inadequate smears. Only about one in 20 smears now need repeat testing. Test results are available within two to four weeks and the majority of women have normal smear tests.
One in 20 women may have abnormal cells detected on smear test. If a smear test result is borderline or mildly abnormal then the laboratory performs the HPV test. This determines if further investigation is required. Anyone whose HPV test is positive will be offered a colposcopy (a microscopic examination of the cervix ) to identify the abnormal cells.
HPV testing has also been recently introduced as part of the cervical screening programme. HPV stands for ‘Human Papilloma Virus’, a common disease that triggers abnormal changes in the cells on the cervix and is transmitted sexually. Most women get infected with HPV at some point; in fact, the majority have the virus without ever knowing as the body’s immune system clears the virus. In the few women where HPV persists, the abnormal cells may worsen and progress to cervical cancer if left untreated.
Remember, a smear test takes just minutes and could be a lifesaver. So do not delay having one.