A cervical screening test (sometimes called a smear test or a pap test) is a simple procedure where a doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix (neck of the womb) to be examined for early changes on the cells. A cervical screening test can identify cell changes before they become cancer cells. If these cells are not found and treated, they could become cancerous over time.
A cervical screening test is a simple test that takes about five minutes. It may be slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful. The appointment should generally take about 15 minutes & are carried out by a female nurse.
A woman can lie on her side or on her back for the screening test. The nurse taking the test will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to hold it open. The cervix is the area where the top of the vagina leads to the uterus (womb). The nurse will use a small, specialised broom to gently brush off a sample of cells from the cervix. This sample is sent to the laboratory to be checked.
The laboratory will examine the test sample for cell changes. If low grade changes are found, the laboratory will also test the sample for certain types of HPV infection. This will help to advise what needs to be done next.
A cervical screening test is not a diagnostic test. As with all screening tests, cervical screening may not always be 100% accurate. There is a small risk that cell changes will not be picked up in a test. However, any cell changes will usually be picked up in future tests. This is why it is important to have regular cervical screening tests.
Routine screening every 3 or 5 years depending on age is recommended for women whose cervical screening test results remain normal.