What is cervical screening? A cervical screening test (or smear test) is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. Many women don’t know what exactly this test is for or how it’s conducted, so here’s the information you need to set your mind at rest.
A smear test is a simple, easy, pain free test which can literally save lives, and should be a part of every woman’s routine health check up. The smear, or more accurately the cervical smear, involves gently inserting a small instrument called a speculum into the vagina, and then brushing a soft brush against the surface of the cervix. This can be very mildly uncomfortable but is extremely quick.
This collects some cells, which are examined under a microscope for changes. If you are having regular smears, i.e. every three years, any abnormalities in the cells will be detected at a very early stage, thus preventing progression to cervical cancer. If abnormal cells are found they can be removed simply with an outpatient procedure.
Testing for abnormal cells
Contrary to popular belief, cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer; it’s a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix. Most women’s test results show that everything is normal, however for around 1 in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.
If your test result shows some abnormal changes, you should not jump to conclusions and worry, as most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own. In some cases, however, if the abnormal cells may become cancerous, they need to be removed, to prevent cancer.
It’s possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, although the condition mainly affects sexually active women aged 30 to 45. The condition is known to be rare in women under 25.
The aim of cervical screening
The aim of the testing is to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer. Since the screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by about 7% each year.
Being screened regularly means any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and, if necessary, treated to stop cancer developing. Unfortunately however, cervical screening isn’t 100% accurate and doesn’t prevent all cases of cervical cancer.
How to make an appointment?
‘CervicalCheck – The National Cervical Screening Programme’ offers free tests to all women between the ages of 25 and 60.
The overall aim of the programme is to reduce the incidence and the death rate from cervical cancer in Ireland by providing free cervical screening.
- Women aged 25 to 44 will be offered a free smear test every three years
- Women aged 45 to 60 will be offered a free smear test every five years
- A woman may also be advised by CervicalCheck to attend for additional smear tests if further investigation is needed, as recommended by the designated cytology laboratory through the programme
The programme is based on:
- Women attending their registered smeartaker following receipt of a CervicalCheck invitation or re-call letter
- Women attending their registered smeartaker for a repeat smear test as advised by a letter from CervicalCheck
- Women attending their registered smeartaker without a CervicalCheck invitation or re-call letter but who are eligible for screening in accordance with the Programme’s Eligibility Framework
Most women choose to go to their GP practice, although it may also be available at a well woman clinic or sexual health clinic. Screening is usually carried out by the practice nurse. You can ask to have a female doctor or nurse.
You will be advised to try and book an appointment during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually between 10 to 14 days from the start of your last period), as this can ensure a better sample of cells is taken. It’s best to make your appointment for when you don’t have your period.
If you use a spermicide, a barrier method of contraception or a lubricant jelly, you shouldn’t use these for 24 hours before the test, as the chemicals they contain may affect the test.
What to expect during a smear test?
The test usually takes around five minutes to carry out. You’ll be asked to undress from the waist down and lie down. The nurse will gently put an instrument, called a speculum, into your vagina. This is to hold the walls of the vagina open so the cervix can be examined. A small soft brush will be used to gently collect some cells from the surface of your cervix.
Some women may find the procedure a bit uncomfortable and even embarrassing, although most women don’t find it painful. If, however, you find the test painful, do not hesitate to tell the nurse, as they may be able to reduce your discomfort. It is advised to try and relax as much as possible, because being tense makes the test more difficult to carry out. Taking slow, deep breaths will help.
The cell sample is then sent off to a laboratory for analysis and you should receive the result within two weeks.
Screening is a personal choice and you have the right to choose not to attend, however we advise that you avail of this simple and extremely effective test, as it could saves lives.
Information provided by NHS and HSE.
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