A cervical screening test (sometimes called a smear test or a pap test) is a simple procedure where a doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix (neck of the womb) to be examined for early changes on the cells. A cervical screening test can identify cell changes before they become cancer cells. If these cells are not found and treated, they could become cancerous over time.
A cervical screening test is a simple test that takes about five minutes. It may be slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful. The appointment should generally take about 15 minutes in the doctor's surgery or health clinic.
A woman can lie on her side or on her back for the screening test. The doctor or nurse taking the test will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to hold it open. The cervix is the area where the top of the vagina leads to the uterus (womb). The doctor or nurse will use a small, specialised broom to gently brush off a sample of cells from the cervix. This sample is sent to the laboratory to be checked.
A cervical screening test is not a diagnostic test. As with all screening tests, cervical screening may not always be 100% accurate. There is a small risk that cell changes will not be picked up in a test. However, any cell changes will usually be picked up in future tests. This is why it is important to have regular cervical screening tests.
Routine screening every 3 or 5 years depending on age is recommended for women whose cervical screening test results remain normal.
Your cervical screening results
Your cervical screening test results (previously smear test results) are usually sent to you in a letter.
Getting your cervical screening results
You'll usually get your results within 4 weeks of your screening test.
If you have waited longer, call your GP or clinic to see if they have any updates.
Your GP gets your result electronically. This means it arrives before your letter does. They may contact you with the result before you get your letter.
Try not to worry if your results are taking longer than 4 weeks. It does not mean anything is wrong.
What your results letter means
Your cervical screening results letter explains what was tested for and what your results mean.
There are 14 high-risk types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. Cervical screening looks to see if you have any of these. It does not tell us which HPV type, or how many types, were found.
Your letter may say:
HPV not found
HPV found and no abnormal cell changes found
HPV found and abnormal cell changes found
inadequate or unsatisfactory sample