Having your cervical screening sample taken should only take a matter of minutes. In the UK, GP’s and practice nurses take the majority of cervical screening samples. If it is the first time you are attending your screening it can be helpful to find out as much as possible about what will happen beforehand.
You can bring a relative or friend with you if you need support and you can request a female nurse or GP to take the sample. Before the procedure starts the doctor or nurse should explain what is going to happen and answer any questions or concerns you may have.
You will be asked to undress from the waist down and to lie on an examination bed either on your back with your legs bent up or ankles together. Some examination beds may have stirrups on them. If yours does you will need to place your feet in the stirrups. A paper sheet will be placed over the lower half of your body. Your GP/nurse will then insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. Some clinicians may use lubricant on the speculum which will make it easier to insert into the vagina. The speculum gently opens your vagina allowing the GP/nurse to see the cervix. The majority of speculums used for screening are made from plastic but occasionally metal ones are used. A specially designed brush is used to take cells from the cervix. The GP/nurse will collect cells from the area of the cervix called the transformation zone. The sampled cells are immersed in a vial of preservative fluid and looked at under the microscope in the laboratory.
In the laboratory, the contents of the vial are spun and treated to remove obscuring material. Cervical screening/smears used to be spread directly onto a microscopic glass slide; however, liquid based cytology (LBC) is now always used in the UK because it is easier to see cellular material clearly under the microscope and reduce the numbers of unreadable screenings.
For most women, cervical screening is not painful but it may feel a little uncomfortable, therefore, if you experience any pain or other problems please do let the doctor or nurse know. You may have some spotting (very light bleeding) for a day after the procedure.
The best time (if possible) for a cervical screening to be taken is in the middle of your menstrual cycle, halfway between one period and the next. This enables the cytologist to examine the best possible specimen to achieve the best possible report. Most GP surgeries will ask you to book the test so do take you menstrual cycle into account before your book your screening test.
Helpful tips before your cervical screening
For many women the thought of going for cervical screening is often worse than the reality. Do not worry if you feel anxious about having your screening test, this is normal and many women feel like this. It can help to be as informed as possible about what having a cervical screening is like. Make sure you discuss any concerns with your GP or practise nurse. Our helpline (0808 802 8000) is also open weekdays should you want to talk about your cervical screening test.
A few points to remember before going for your screening:
- Do not have sexual intercourse 24 hours before your screening as sperm, spermicidal gel, and lubricants may make it difficult to get a good sample of cells from the cervix.
- If vaginal pessaries have been prescribed to treat an infection then postpone your screening for at least a week after the treatment has finished.
- If you are using a vaginal oestrogen cream for menopause symptoms, do not apply it on the day of your screening.
- Do not douche or use a tampon for at least two days before your screening.
- The sample taker should cover you with a paper towel – however, you can always wear a skirt or bring a scarf if you want to cover yourself up.
- The more relaxed you are, the less discomfort you will feel.
- You can bring a family member or friend with you for moral support.