What is the NHS Cervical Screening Programme?

Cervical Screening (Smear Test) is routinely offered to women as part of a National Screening Programme between the ages of 25 and 64.

This test is not to diagnose cervical cancer. The test is to check the health of the cervix, which is the lower part of the womb - sometimes called the neck of the womb. For the majority of women the test will show that everything is fine but for 1 in 20 women there may be some changes in the cells that can be caused by many things. Most of these changes will not lead to cervical cancer. Since the 1980’s, cervical cancer rates have halved mostly due to women having regular smear tests.

Women should be called routinely every 3 years until the age of 50, then the frequency is reduced to 5 yearly. This invite should be automatically sent via your GP surgery. You can then decide if you wish to make an appointment with your GP or Practice Nurse for your cervical screen or you can attend one of our sexual health clinics. You can only have a cervical screen done if you have been called. Before your smear is taken, a national database that will be checked to make sure you are due for screening – this means it is important that we have your correct name, address and date of birth.

What happens during the test?

The test does not take very long. You will need to undress from the waist down and lie on a couch. The doctor or nurse will then put a small instrument, called a speculum into your vagina to be able to see your cervix. A small brush is then used to pick up the cells from your cervix and transferred into a small container of liquid. This is then sent to the lab to be examined under a microscope.

Your sample is kept in storage at the lab for at least 10 years. They can compare your latest test with any previous ones. Sometimes the samples are used for audit purposes in order to maintain a quality service and increase the expertise of specialist staff.

The results are sent back to you at your home address via a letter from the Call/Recall Service. Your GP will also receive a copy of your results. This will also let you know when you will need to return for your next cervical screen.

How reliable is the test?

As with all screening tests it is not perfect, but early detection and treatment can prevent around 75% of cancers.

Abnormal cells on your slide may not always be recognised because:

  • Sometimes they look very similar to normal cells

  • There may be very few abnormal cells on the slide

  • The person reading your slide may miss them ( this can happen even with the most experienced reader )

Around 1 in 20 tests need to be repeated because:

  • You may have an infection which needs treatment before a clear slide can be made

  • The cervical cells have been hidden by mucus or blood

  • There may not be enough cells on the slide to make an accurate assessment

  • Your sample may not have been properly prepared

  • The slide may be broken

If you have any unusual symptoms, such as bleeding after sex or between periods, you should see a doctor.

What if my test has an abnormal result?

An abnormal result usually means that small changes have been found in the cervical cells – this is called dyskariosis.

In many cases, these changes resolve themselves but sometimes they continue to change and could possibly lead to cancer in the future. In such cases you would need to have a further examination which would show if you need treatment.

Treatment is simple and virtually 100% effective. The area of changed cells are removed from the cervix. Once this is done, you will have  a check-up. If everything is ok you will go back to the normal 3 yearly recall.

This treatment does not affect your fertility but it is recommended not to become pregnant until your abnormal cells are treated.

Further Information