Smear test (cervical screening test)

A cervical smear test checks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Finding these changes can prevent cervical cancer from developing.

What is a smear test?

A cervical smear test checks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Finding these changes can prevent cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix) from developing.

A smear test is usually the first part of cervical screening. This is a way of collecting a small sample of cells from the cervix. It is also called the cervical screening test.

Finding and treating these changes can prevent cervical cancer developing.

We have information about why it is important to have cervical screening.

Home or self-sampling

The NHS is researching a new way of doing cervical screening. Instead of having a cervical smear test, you are given a vaginal swab to do yourself. If your test shows HPV, you will then be offered a cervical smear test.

Self-sampling is being researched in some areas of London in 2021.

How often should I have a smear test?

You will usually be offered a smear test every 3 years (or 5 years if you are aged over 50).

The NHS will contact you when it is time for your test if you are:

  • aged between 25 to 64 years old
  • registered as female with a GP.

If you are a trans man or non-binary person and have a cervix, you should have screening too. But, you may not be sent a smear test invitation if you are registered as male with your GP. Tell your GP if you want to have cervical screening, so they can arrange regular tests for you.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (Jo's Trust) has detailed information about cervical screening for trans and non-binary people. This includes information about having a smear test, trans-specific clinics and further support.

We have more detailed information about who can have a smear test on our cervical screening page.

Having a smear test

Usually a nurse or doctor can do the test for you at your GP practice or sexual health clinic. If you have questions or worries about the test, let the nurse or doctor know. They will understand and try to make you comfortable. A cervical smear test takes less than 5 minutes. It should not hurt, but sometimes it can feel uncomfortable.

When you are ready, you undress from the waist down. You then lie on your back on an examination couch. Some clinics have couches with foot or leg supports that you can rest your legs up on. You will be asked to lie with your knees bent and apart.

Having a cervical smear test
Image: Having a cervical smear test

The doctor or nurse gently puts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina. This holds the vagina open so that they can see the cervix. They then sweep a small, soft plastic brush over the cervix to take the sample of cells.

How a smear test is done 
Image: How a smear test is done

After a smear test

After the test, the sample is sent to a laboratory checked.

You may have some very light vaginal bleeding for a day after. You should always tell your GP if you have heavy bleeding, bleeding after sex or bleeding between periods.

Smear test results

Ask the nurse or doctor when you will get your test results. Usually you will get a letter with the results within 2 to 4 weeks. If you do not hear anything by 6 weeks, tell your GP so they can check for you.

We have more information about cervical screening results.

Your feelings about the smear test

A cervical smear test is a very personal procedure. You may find it a bit embarrassing. For some, the thought of having the test is too frightening and stressful and they decide they cannot cope with it.

If you are finding it difficult to cope, but you want to have the test, it may help to talk about it with someone. You may want to talk to a friend or family member. Your GP or practice nurse can answer any questions you have and explain ways they can make the test easier for you. Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone you do not know.

These organisations provide information and support about having cervical screening:

  • Eve Appeal
    Eve Appeal offers information and support for anyone affected by gynaecological cancers. Also provides information about cervical screening and for trans, non-binary and intersex people. Call their helpline on 0808 802 0019.
  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (Jo’s Trust)
    Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (Jo’s Trust) offers information and support for anyone affected by cervical cancer or abnormal cervical cell changes. Call their helpline on 0808 802 8000.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 April 2021
Next review: 01 April 2024

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.