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A beginner’s guide to your first smear test

By Stephanie Taylor, Managing Director of Kegel8

Smear tests have (undeservedly) gained a bit of a bad reputation, leaving many young women dreading receiving their first invitation in the post.

Things have been further complicated by COVID-19, with smear test appointments being cancelled or postponed during the first wave in Spring. But now the backlog has cleared, the NHS is urging women to book a cervical screening. 

If it’s your first time and you’re unsure about what to expect, pelvic health expert and Managing Director of Kegel8, Stephanie Taylor demystifies the process to calm your nerves…

What is a smear test?

A smear test, or cervical screening, is a routine health check offered to women from the age of 25. It’s usually performed at your GP surgery by a qualified nurse or in a sexual health centre.

The screening involves collecting cells from your cervix, the opening of the womb from your vagina. It tests for the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer over time.

This may sound scary, but most women will experience no or only mild discomfort during the 5-minute test.  For those who have had a vaginal exam or had the coil fitted prior, the process isn’t so different.

Why is it important to book your first test?

Around your 25th birthday you’ll receive an invitation in the post to attend a smear test. Don’t put off your first smear test; it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself against cervical cancer and you’ll be re-invited every three to five years until you’re 64.

Essentially, these screenings can be life savers. Cervical cancer can take a few years to develop as the abnormal cells form, so smear tests can catch any problems early before they become dangerous. 

If you have had the HPV vaccine, it’s still important you attend your smear tests as this doesn’t protect you from all types of HPV.

What happens during your appointment?

When you arrive for your smear test the nurse will go through exactly what’s going to happen so you feel relaxed and can ask any questions.

You’ll be asked to remove your clothes from the waist down behind a screen, before lying on the bed with a sheet over you. Bend your legs with your feet together and knees apart. 

When you’re ready, the nurse will gently put a smooth, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) into your vagina with lubricant, to take a sample of cells from your cervix with a soft brush. This will then be closed and removed.

If you’re in pain your nurse can take steps to ease this like asking you to change position or using a smaller speculum.

Spotting or light bleeding after your screening is very common and nothing to be worried about. This should go away after a few hours and will be painless.

You’ll be told when to expect your results after the test. If the result is positive for HPV cells, there’s no need to panic. The sample will be checked for abnormal changes. If the result is unclear you may be invited back in three months for a second screening.

How to prepare for your first smear test

Mostly, try to relax. The more relaxed you are, the easier and quicker the test will be. Your nurse can talk you through simple breathing techniques to help.

If you feel self-conscious about getting undressed, wear something you can leave on during the test like a skirt or long top. But remember, nurses see hundreds of women like this every year and you will not be judged.

You’re also able to listen to music or read a book during the test and you can ask someone to attend the appointment with you to calm your nerves.

Before your appointment, avoid sex, lubricants and any other artificial substances in your vagina, even medicinal ones. These can make test samples less accurate.

Avoid booking a screening around your period as this can make the process harder and cause false negatives. If your period isn’t regular, don’t stress, it’s still possible when mother nature calls.

It’s also worth noting that you’re entitled to request a female nurse, just ask when booking your appointment.