Even bad-ass warrior women get nervous about having their cervix examined. This Cervical Screening Awareness Week, let’s talk about why it’s vital to power through it anyway.
Cervical Screenings or ‘smear tests’ are THE BEST way to protect yourself from getting cervical cancer. Given that, why don’t more women snap up the offer of having their cervix examined like Patrick Dempsey just offered them Netflix and chill at his place? Well, because it scares us - in a way that Rom Coms with McDreamy doesn’t.
1 in 3 women miss their smear tests, according to NHS figures. Whether this is due to fear or embarrassment, we figure that the best way to increase this uptake is to empower women with all the information they need.
Cervical Screening: The Low-Down (pardon the pun)
What is a smear test?
A smear test, or cervical screening, is a short examination that’s carried out by a doctor or nurse, to detect the presence of high-risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in a woman’s cervix.
Why are smear tests so important?
The test itself doesn’t tell you if you have cancer, rather it detects abnormal cells in the cervix which could cause a problem later on if left untreated.The reason smear tests are so vital is that, if abnormal cells are found, there are treatments available before they cause a problem.
Who’s eligible for a smear test?
Women in the UK are currently invited to attend cervical screening on the NHS between the ages of 25 and 65. Younger women used to be invited, but due to the immaturity of the cervix, cervical screenings amongst younger women tended to result in many false positives or inconclusive results.
How often should you have a smear test?
Getting a smear test invite is a bit like getting a new haircut, if haircuts could save your life. It’s a big responsibility and it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it’s a right of passage you have to take.
If you are registered with an NHS GP you will receive a letter inviting you to attend for a smear every 3 years between the ages of 25 and 49 and then every 5 years between the age of 50 and 64. You’ll only be asked to attend smear tests after the age of 65 if you’ve recently had an abnormal test.
How do I book my smear test?
Simply ring your GP surgery and tell them you’ve got the golden ticket through the post, and they’ll book you in for a test (Don’t actually say golden ticket, it’s not a chocolate factory. Willy Wonka can stay the F away).
Can you request that a female nurse or doctor does the procedure?
Yes you can. Surgeries will try their best to accommodate your needs, but this may not be possible in all cases.
Can I have sex the night before my spear test?
Hell yes, honey. However, you should avoid using lubricants or spermicide for 24 hours before the test, as they may affect your results.
How long does the procedure take?
The whole appointment will take about 10-15 minutes, consisting of some form-filling, and the actual procedure which only takes a minute or two.
What actually happens at a smear test?
You will be asked to take off your bottoms and knickers behind a curtain, and then lie down on the medical bed on your back.
Your professional will advise you to bend your knees and bring your heels up towards your bottom before letting your knees flop apart. All you need is a resistance band and you’ve got yourself a glute workout. 😏
The healthcare professional will use a speculum to hold back the sides of your vagina so they can examine your cervix. This tool is usually made of plastic but may sometimes be metal. A small brush is then used to collect a sample of cells from your cervix which will be placed in a test tube. The speculum is removed and you’re all done.
Does the procedure hurt?
Some women say that the speculum feels like a stretching discomfort. The cervix may arouse a ‘period like pain’ when the brush is used to take the sample. However, most women say that their experience was totally painless.
Should you still go to a smear test if you're pregnant?
The official advice is not to go to your smear test when pregnant, unless you’ve been called back due to an abnormal result in a recent text.
Can you have a smear test when you’re on your period?
Blood within the sample can alter the results of your smear test so you should try to book it when you’re not menstruating. A small amount of spotting shouldn’t alter any results.
How soon after having a baby should I have a smear test?
For routine smear testing you should wait 3 months after having a baby. However if you have an appointment scheduled sooner, and you’ve previously had abnormal results, you should still attend. Be sure to let the practitioner know you’ve recently had a baby.
Can I go for a smear test if I'm breastfeeding?
Yes. The procedure won’t affect your ability to breastfeed.
What results will I get back from my smear test?
There are several possible results:
- HPV unavailable – this means that your test was inconclusive, possibly due to menstruation. You will be asked to book in for another test.
- HPV negative – if you are found to be high risk HPV negative the sample won’t be tested further as there is no cause for concern. You will be recalled in the normal screening programme.
- HPV positive or found but inadequate – HPV has been found but not enough cells to read the sample properly – here you will be recalled after three months.
- HPV found but no cell changes found – HPV infection is common and your body’s immune system often gets rid of it on its own. You will be recalled after 1 year to check it has gone. If you have 3 positive HPV results but no cell changes are found you will be invited to a colposcopy.
- HPV and cell changes – you will be invited to attend a colposcopy.
What is a colposcopy?
Colposcopy is carried out at your local hospital and involves sitting on a bed, generally with your legs in stirrups so the doctor can have a closer look at your cervix using a special microscope called a colposcope.
Just as with a smear test, the speculum is inserted and then the doctor looks through the colposcope at the cervix. Various solutions such as iodine are applied to the cervix to check the cells.
What if I'm embarrassed about how I look and smell down there?
Practitioners are used to vaginas - this ain’t their first rodeo. There’s no ‘normal’ way to look and smell and you won’t be judged on your vagina. Practitioners are there to carry out a procedure for your health. Please don’t be embarrassed.
We hope that puts your mind at ease. For more information straight from the doctor’s mouth, check out our IGTV NESSPERT episode with Dr. Pavan, who summarises the whole process.
Love, Nessa. x