Screening test

The cervical screening test aims to pick up any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus.. Sometimes these changes may resolve by themselves, without any treatment. However, some may progress over time to cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to know which changes will resolve and which will not, but they can be treated before they progress.

The cervical screening test lasts just five minutes and should be painless, although it can be a little uncomfortable

What does a cervical screening test involve?

The cervical screening test lasts just five minutes and should be painless, although it can be a little uncomfortable. You will be asked 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, which holds the walls of the vagina slightly apart so that the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. can be clearly seen.

A small spatula or cotton-tipped swab is used to gently brush a few cells from the surface of the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus.. The cells are then placed onto a glass slide or into a small bottle of liquid, and sent off to a laboratory where they are looked at under a microscope.

Often the nurse or doctor will carry out a pelvicRelating to the pelvis. examination at the same time as your cervical screening test. This involves gently inserting two fingers of a gloved hand into your vagina, and pressing gently on your abdomenThe part of the body that contains the stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder and other organs. with the other hand.

This is known as a bi-manual examination and can help to check the health of your uterus The womb, where embryo implantation occurs and the growing foetus is nourished.(womb). It should not hurt, but tell the doctor or nurse if you feel any discomfort during the examination.

When is the best time to have a cervical screening test?

The best time to have a cervical screening test is in the middle of your menstrual cycleThe monthly sequence by which a woman’s body prepares for potential fertilisation of an egg released from the ovaries, involving thickening of the uterus lining and then shedding of the lining when pregnancy does not occur., during the gap between two menstrual periods. For example, if you have a 28-day cycle, counting the first day of bleeding as day one, the middle of your cycle will be around day 14, so it is best to book the test for sometime between days nine and 20.

This is when the cervical mucus is thinnest and there are the most cells available for sampling. If you have irregular periods, you can still have a test at any time during your cycle, but it is slightly more likely that the sample will not be adequate and you may need a repeat test.

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you can still have a cervical screening test if you need one, depending on how long it has been since your last test and on your previous results, but it is best to discuss this with your healthcare provider. You may be advised to wait until about three months after the baby is born.

It is important to ensure that you get your results rather than assuming that 'no news is good news'

After a cervical screening test

It is worthwhile asking your doctor or nurse how long the results should take, as this can vary depending on where you have the test done. It is important to ensure that you get your results rather than assuming that 'no news is good news'.

Sometimes a repeat test is needed because the first was inadequate - for example, because not enough cells were collected.

Abnormal cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. changes, or dysplasiaAbnormal development of cells or tissue, which may become cancerous over time, or may resolve with or without treatment., are detected fairly often and may well return to normal over time. If any cellThe basic unit of all living organisms. changes are seen, you may be asked to return for a repeat cervical screening test in a few months to see whether this is the case. Alternatively, you may be advised to have another test, called a colposcopy. During colposcopyClose examination of the cervix of the uterus using a magnifying instrument with attached light source, known as a colposcope., the doctor or specialist nurse looks at the cervixAny neck-like structure; most commonly refers to the neck of the uterus. using a magnifying instrument called a colposcopeA binocular microscope with an attached light source, used to examine the cervix of the uterus..

Whether a repeat cervical screening test or a colposcopyClose examination of the cervix of the uterus using a magnifying instrument with attached light source, known as a colposcope. is recommended as the next step usually depends on the level of change seen in your cervical cells.