What is cervical screening?

What is cervical screening?

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.

What is cervical screening?

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.

What is cervical screening?

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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Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.


Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.