Cervical screening (also known as the smear test) saves around 5,000 lives every year in the UK and prevents 8 out of 10 cervical cancers from developing.
The smear test checks the cells from your cervix (the neck of the womb). It’s designed to pick up any changes to the cells in your cervix so that they can be monitored or treated. Without treatment the changes can sometimes develop into cervical cancer.
Six women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every week in Scotland, so it’s really important to attend for your smear test when invited - it’s the best way to protect yourself from the disease and find any changes to your cervix early.
The earlier cervical cancer is found, the easier it is to treat and you’re nine times more likely to survive cervical cancer when it’s found at an early stage, compared to a late stage.
Your smear test
All women in Scotland aged 25 to 49 are invited for a smear test every three years, while women aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years. Invites are sent through the post and shouldn’t be ignored.
Pre-cancerous cell changes don’t usually have any symptoms so it’s important to go for your smear test every time you’re invited, even if you’ve had the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine.
The test checks the cells from your cervix (the neck of the womb) and is designed to pick up any changes so that they can be monitored or treated. Without treatment the changes can sometimes develop into cervical cancer.
The test only takes five minutes and is then sent to a lab for testing. The lab sends the results to your GP who will get in touch with the result, usually within four weeks of having the test.
If you’d feel more comfortable with a female nurse or GP, be sure to mention this when you make your appointment. You could even take a friend or relative along too if you’d prefer.
To find out exactly what happens at a smear test appointment, and what you can expect afterwards, read the NHS ‘a smear test could save your life’ leaflet.
What to look out for
There are usually no symptoms with changes in cervical cells and sometimes there are no symptoms with early stage cervical cancer. Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you notice any of the following symptoms -
- Abnormal bleeding: during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods
- Post-menopausal bleeding, if you are not on HRT or have stopped it for six weeks
- Unusual and/or unpleasant vaginal discharge
- Discomfort or pain during sex
- Lower back pain.
There are many other conditions that could cause these symptoms so while it’s probably nothing to worry about, you should see your GP. Whatever it is, the earlier it’s found the easier it will be to treat.
Cervical cancer is not thought to be hereditary. In the majority of cases, it’s caused by persistent infection with a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus transmitted through any skin to skin contact in the genital area, not just penetrative sex. Around 4 out of 5 people (80%) will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, for the majority of women this will not result in cervical cancer.
Your risk of cervical cancer increases if:
- You are or have been sexually active - this includes any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, or using sex toys.
- You smoke - tobacco smoke affects the cells in your cervix.
You can find out more about cervical cancer risk factors here.
A specialist's view
I’ve done hundreds, if not thousands, of smear tests during my career so far. It can be a nervous time for some women so I do what I can to put them at ease and always remind them that there’s no such thing as a silly question.
Afterwards, most women – especially those that it’s their first time - are surprised by how quickly it’s all over. It takes just minutes, and could stop cancer before it starts, so I’d encourage all women to think twice before they add their invite to a pile of unopened mail or forget about it completely. Remember, there are practice nurses and GPs across Scotland, just like me, waiting to help protect you from cervical cancer.
Mary Horne, Practice Nurse, NHS Lothian
Do I need a smear test if...
I’m a lesbian/bisexual?
Yes. The types of HPV that can cause changes in the cells of your cervix are transmitted through any sexual contact. This includes penetrative sex and other types of sexual activity, such as skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, or using sex toys.
I’ve had the HPV vaccine?
The vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV and will not protect against any HPV infections you picked up before you had the vaccine. So although the vaccine offers good protection, it’s still important to attend for regular smear tests.
I haven’t been sexually active for a long time?
Many people have HPV for months or years without knowing it. So it’s important that you have regular smear tests if you have ever been sexually active.
I’ve been through the menopause?
You still need to check your cervix is healthy. Sometimes the test may be more uncomfortable because of dryness in the vagina after menopause. But your nurse or GP will have ways to reduce discomfort.
You may not need a test. If you’re pregnant or have a new baby, tell your nurse or GP when you’re invited for a smear test.
I’ve had a hysterectomy?
You may not need a test. Check with your nurse or GP before making an appointment.
- Smear tests detect cells that could turn into cancer, so they can stop cervical cancer before it starts.
- Smear tests save around 5,000 lives every year in the UK.
- Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 years of age in Scotland.
- Around six women in Scotland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every week.
- Smear tests are your best protection against cervical cancer, even if you've been immunised against HPV.
- Your smear test can pick up changes to your cells even if you look and feel healthy and have no symptoms.
- Smear tests prevent 8 out of 10 cervical cancers from developing.
Do you know the common signs and symptoms to look out for?
Lisa Maher, 30, from Glasgow, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011 after attending a...Read Story about Lisa Maher