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What happens during cervical screening?

If you feel worried about going for cervical screening (a smear test), you are not alone. It may help to know as much as possible about what going for cervical screening is like. Ask someone you trust about their experience, speak with your doctor or nurse, or call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000 for more support.

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Before your appointment

  • If you are registered with a GP, you will get a letter telling you it is time for your cervical screening appointment. You have to ring your GP to book an appointment. If you don’t want to go to the GP, see if sexual health clinics in your local area offer cervical screening. 
  • If you get regular periods, try not to book an appointment when you are bleeding as it can make it harder to get a clear sample of cells. But the most important thing is booking an appointment at a time that works for you.
  • Do not use spermicide or lubricant jelly (lube) for 24 hours before the test, as they can affect the results.

During your appointment

  • Your whole visit to the GP surgery should not take longer than about 15 minutes, with the test itself taking about 3 minutes.
  • Your nurse (sometimes called a sample taker) invites you into a treatment room. They should explain what cervical screening is and check if you have any questions. 
  • Your nurse gives you a private space, usually behind a curtain, and asks you to undress from the waist down. If you are wearing a dress or skirt, you can leave this on and just remove your underwear. 
  • Your nurse asks you to lie on an examination bed. Usually you lie on your back with:

          1. your legs bent up

          2. your ankles together and your knees apart.

  • Some examination beds have stirrups on them. If yours does, you should place your feet in the stirrups. If this is uncomfortable, you can ask to lie on your left side with your knees bent (left lateral position).
  • You get a paper sheet to cover the lower half of your body. 
  • Your nurse lets you know when the test is about to start. First, they gently put a new, clean speculum into your vagina. A speculum is usually a plastic cylinder with a round end (see picture below) – sometimes a metal speculum is used. The speculum is sometimes the part that people find uncomfortable.

A speculum and brush

A nurse holding a speculum and brush used during cervical screening.

  • Once the speculum is inside your vagina, the nurse gently opens it so they can see your cervix.  
  • Then the nurse uses a small, soft brush to quickly take a sample of cells from your cervix. This may feel a little strange, but should not be painful.

Someone having cervical screening (a smear test)

Someone lying on their back to have cervical screening. It shows the nurse taking a swab of cells from the cervix.

  • Your sample of cells is put into a small plastic container (vial) of liquid. The liquid preserves the cells. 
  • That’s it! The test is over for you. The nurse will take the speculum out of your vagina and give you a private space to dress again. They will explain how and when you should get your results.

Read more about getting your cervical screening results > 

After your appointment

Most people can continue their day as usual after the appointment. You may have some very light bleeding (spotting) for a day after the test, so it can help to wear a sanitary pad or panty-liner.

Cervical screening should not feel painful, but it may feel a bit uncomfortable. If you have any pain or other problems, it is important to let your doctor or nurse know.

Read about what happens to your sample after your appointment >

Tips to make cervical screening better for you

Everyone’s experience is different, but knowing these tips before you go for cervical screening may help you feel more comfortable:

  1. Ask for a nurse or doctor of a particular gender – for example, a female nurse. If you have a nurse or doctor you trust, check with your GP surgery if they are able to do your test. 
  2. Book a longer or double appointment. If you think you may need more time during or after your test, check if your GP surgery offers it. Be prepared for your GP surgery’s receptionist to ask why you need a longer appointment and remember you do not have to disclose anything.
  3. Take someone you trust with you. It could be a friend, family member, partner or someone else. They can be in the waiting room or examination room with you to offer support. They may also be able to speak on your behalf about any worries. 
  4. Talk to your nurse or doctor. If it is your first cervical screening, you feel embarrassed or worried, you have had a bad experience before, or you have experienced anything that makes the test hard for you, telling the person doing the test means they can try to give you the right support. If you don’t feel comfortable saying something, try writing it down.
  5. If you feel comfortable doing so, wear a skirt or dress. You can keep this on during the test, which may help you feel more covered. You do get a paper sheet to cover yourself, but check if you can bring a spare shawl or blanket too.
  6. Ask for a smaller speculum. Speculums come in different sizes, so if you find the standard size too uncomfortable, you can ask to try another size.
  7. Ask to lie in a different position. Lying on your back may feel uncomfortable for lots of reasons. You can ask to lie on your left hand side with your knees bent (left lateral position).
  8. If you have gone through or are going through the menopause, let your doctor or nurse know. As we get older, the opening of the vagina and vaginal walls become smaller and less able to stretch, which can make the test more uncomfortable. You can ask your nurse to give (prescribe) you a vaginal oestrogen cream or pessary, which may help.

“I was a year overdue my smear test – life gets in the way and you end up putting your health to one side. But my friend encouraged me to go and we both went together.”

- Marianne 

More information and support

Whether it’s your first time or you have been many times before, going for cervical screening may make you anxious, but we are here to help. We have more information about the test for:

If you have questions or just want to talk things through, give our Helpline a call on 0808 802 8000. We also have an online forum where you can chat with others who have been for cervical screening or may have similar questions.

Show references


How we research and write our information >

  1. NHS Choices, Cervical screening, www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/  Accessed: August 2018



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What happens after cervical screening? >

Find out how cervical screening samples are tested.

Date last updated: 
23 Oct 2018
Date due for review: 
23 Oct 2021

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