What is a smear test?

A cervical smear test is a simple test that checks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. It is also called a cervical screening test and is used as part of the cervical screening programme.

Finding and treating these changes can prevent cancer of the cervix developing.

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

How often should I have a smear test?

The NHS sends regular invitations for cervical screening to women who are registered with a GP.

Regular smear tests are important for anyone

  • between 25 and 64 years old
  • who has a cervix
  • and has ever been sexually active with a man or a woman.

If your smear test result is normal, you will be invited back for screening in 3 years (or 5 years if you are over 50).

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

Having a smear test

You will usually have your smear test at your GP or sexual health clinic. If you have questions or worries, let the nurse or doctor know. They will try to make you comfortable.

When you are ready you:

  • undress from the waist down
  • lie down on your back on an examination couch
  • will be asked to lie with your knees bent and feet flat on the couch or with your feet together and knees apart. Some clinics have a couch with leg supports.
Having a smear test 

The nurse or doctor will:

  • gently put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina
  • use this instrument to open the vagina just enough to see your cervix
  • sweep a small soft plastic brush over the cervix to take the sample of cells.

The test takes less than five minutes. It should not hurt but sometimes it can feel uncomfortable.

How a smear test is done

After a smear test

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.

After the test, the small brush is sent to a laboratory and your cells are examined under a microscope.

Smear test results

Ask the nurse or doctor when you will get the results of your test. In most areas of the UK, you will get a letter with your test 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

The cervical smear test is a very personal procedure. Many people 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 it through 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 don’t know.

If you would like to talk to one of our nurses about the cervical screening test, call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (7 days a week, 8am-8pm).

How we can help

Macmillan Cancer Support Line
The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. If you need to talk, we'll listen.
0808 808 00 00
7 days a week, 9am - 5pm
Email us
Get in touch via this form
Chat online
7 days a week, 9am - 5pm
Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
Help in your area
What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.