Preparing for and having a cervical screening test

Cervical screening is a test to look for early changes in cells of the cervix. It’s not a test for cancer, but it’s possible that these cell changes may develop into cancer in the future.

The screening is done using a test called liquid-based cytology. It’s often called a cervical smear.

It’s a simple procedure and takes less than five minutes. The doctor or nurse will gently put an instrument called a speculum into the vagina. A small brush is then put inside to gently collect cells from the cervix. Some women find the procedure a bit uncomfortable but it shouldn’t be painful.

It’s best not to have the test during your period so think about timing when making your appointment. It’s also important to let your GP know if you’re pregnant. They may recommend that you wait to be screened until after you’ve given birth.

Many women feel worried or embarrassed about having the screening test. If you feel like this,

you might find it helpful to talk to your GP. They can reassure you about having the test.

Preparing for the test

Cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer. It looks for early changes in cells of the cervix, which may develop into cancer in the future.

Before you have your cervical screening test, you may find it helpful to consider the following factors:

  • The best time to have the test is before or after your period, when you are not bleeding.
  • If you’re pregnant when you are invited for your routine cervical screening test, tell your GP. Your GP will usually recommend that you wait to have your test three months after you have given birth. Occasionally, you may be asked to have a screening test while you’re pregnant.

Many women feel nervous and embarrassed about going for a cervical screening test. These are natural emotions and they shouldn’t stop you having it done. If you feel unsure about having the test, it may be helpful to discuss your concerns and worries with the practice nurse or your GP. They can talk to you about the screening and reassure you so you feel able to have the test.

Having the test

Cervical screening is done using a test called liquid-based cytology. This is often referred to as a cervical smear. It’s a very simple procedure and takes less than five minutes. It can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful. There are no side effects, and once it’s over you should be able to get back to your normal day. The person carrying out the test will explain the procedure, and you should feel able to ask questions at any time.

Once you’re lying comfortably on the couch, the doctor or nurse will gently put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina so that your cervix can be seen. A special brush will be used to gently take cells from the cervix. The head of the brush is then either rinsed into a small container of preservative, or snapped off and put into the container. The container will be sent to the laboratory for examination.

In the laboratory, any blood or mucus that could spoil the test is removed from the sample. Then a thin layer of cervical cells are then spread onto a slide and examined under a microscope.

If you’re pregnant

If you become pregnant and you're not up to date with your screening tests, or you've previously had an abnormal test result, your GP or midwife may ask you to have a screening test at your first antenatal appointment. It's safe to have a cervical screening test during pregnancy. It may cause a small amount of bleeding afterwards, but this is normal.

Back to Cervical screening

The cervix

The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus). It’s often called the neck of the womb.

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening can help stop cancer developing in the cervix by finding abnormal cells early.

Getting your cervical screening results

You should get your results within about two weeks of having your cervical screening test.

Your feelings about cervical screening

People react differently to their screening results. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN)

Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN) is a term used to describe changes in the surface (squamous) cells of the cervix.

Diagnosing CIN

A colposcopy is used to confirm whether you have cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN) and how severe it might be.

Grading CIN

Knowing the grade of CIN will help your specialist plan the best treatment for you.

Treating CIN

If you have been diagnosed with CIN, you may have treatment to remove the abnormal cells. There are different types of treatment.

After treatment for CIN

Most women feel fine after treatment for CIN but some may feel unwell for a few hours. You will be referred for regular screening tests.