Smear tests are important and can save your life. You should get yours regularly when invited even if you are not currently sexually active. They are designed to detect changes, which if untreated could develop into cervical cancer.

In the UK, people with a cervix are invited every 3 years between the ages of 25–49 and every 5 years between the ages of 50–64 for their cervical screening. There is some regional variation, so you may be called earlier than 25 years old in some areas.

The smear test is a screening test, which means it is used to find problems which may otherwise go undetected, before they cause symptoms. If you have symptoms such as irregular bleeding, unusual discharge, pain on sex, or bleeding after sex, a smear test is unlikely to be suitable and you should discuss the most appropriate tests and management with your doctor.

For a smear test, you will be asked to lie on your back with your legs bent and your knees parted.

  • A plastic or metal tube, called a speculum, is inserted into the vagina to hold it open so that the cervix (entrance to the womb at the top of the vagina) can be seen.

Cervical cytology test

  • The doctor or nurse will look at the cervix and then gently insert a specially designed plastic brush into the cervix before turning it in a circular motion to collect some cells and cervical mucus

Collecting cells with a cervical broom

  • The cells are collected in a special fluid in a pot and will be sent to the laboratory.

Collection of cells in fluid for laboratory testing

  • A cervical smear test only takes a few minutes. It is not painful but can be a bit uncomfortable. Your doctor or nurse will be able to tell you how long it will take to get the test results.
  • Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Therefore the sample is first tested for HPV. If the sample is negative (no HPV detected), you will be recalled after 3 years. If HPV is detected, the cells will then be looked at under a microscope to examine for any changes. If there are any abnormalities, you may be recalled for a repeat test sooner, or invited for more detailed examination and tests at the colposcopy clinic.
  • There is now a widespread HPV vaccination programme, but you should still attend for your smear test even if you have been vaccinated as not all strains can be covered by the vaccine.


First published on:
Reviewed and edited by: Dr Laura Gush
Last updated: May 2021

Related Posts

This post summarizes the state of knowledge on ectopic pregnancy, a rare but life-threatening complication of pregnancy. Although it only...
Some people have a testicle on only one side. On the other side, the testicle is completely missing or it...
It is important that all lumps within your scrotum, on or alongside your testicle are examined by a doctor. Even...


Share your opinion with us and leave a comment below!