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What happens at cervical screening?


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



Coronavirus (COVID-19) update
Most cervical screening appointments are being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. We know you may be worried, which is why we have created a hub of information and support. If you need to talk, our services are still here to support you – call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000.

At your cervical screening (smear test) appointment, a nurse takes a sample of cells from your cervix using a small, soft brush. They send this to a lab to test for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) and, if you have HPV, any cervical cell changes. In Northern Ireland, your sample is currently only tested for cervical cell changes.

We also have information about:

If you feel worried about going for cervical screening, you are not alone. It may help to know as much as possible about what going for cervical screening is like. You could ask someone you trust about their experience, speak with your nurse or GP, or call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000 for more support.

Check our Helpline opening hours >

Booking your cervical screening 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 contact your GP to book an appointment. You can usually do this online, in person, or over the phone. 

If you don’t want to go to the GP, see if sexual health clinics in your local area offer cervical screening. 

You can book a cervical screening appointment at any time. If you can, it is best not to book a cervical screening when you have your period because it can make it harder to get a result. But the most important thing is booking an appointment for a date and time that works for you. 

Try not to use spermicide or oil-based lubricant (lube) for 24 hours before the test, as they can affect the results.

At your cervical screening appointment

Your whole visit to the GP surgery should not take longer than about 15 minutes, with the test itself taking a couple of minutes.

Someone having cervical screening

Someone lying back on an examination bed. A nurse has gently put a speculum inside the person's vagina to see the cervix, so they can take a sample of cells.
















 A nurse, sometimes called a sample taker, will invite you into a treatment room. They will explain what cervical screening is and check if you have any questions. 

The nurse will give you a private space to undress from the waist down. If you are wearing a dress or skirt, you can leave this on and just take off your underwear. 

The nurse will ask you to lie on an examination bed. You can lie:

  • on your back with your legs bent up, your ankles together and your knees apart (see picture above)
  • on your left side with your knees bent. 

The nurse will give you a new, clean paper sheet to cover the lower half of your body. 

The nurse will let 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. The nurse may use a small amount of water-based lubricant to help make it more comfortable for you. 

A speculum and brush

A gloved hand holding a speculum and brush used in cervical screening.











 Once the speculum is inside your vagina, the nurse will gently open it so they can see your cervix.  

Then the nurse will use a small, soft brush to quickly take a sample of cells from your cervix. This may feel a bit strange, but should not be painful.

The nurse will put your sample of cells into a small plastic container (vial) of liquid. The liquid preserves the cells so they can be sent to a lab for testing. 

And that’s it! 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 about how your sample is tested > 

After your cervical screening appointment

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

Your cervical screening results should arrive by post within 2 weeks.

Read about cervical screening results >

Cervical screening appointment FAQs

Everyone’s experience of cervical screening is different. Some people don't find it uncomfortable, while for others it may be uncomfortable or hurt. There are lots of reasons, physical and pyschological, for this. But if you want to go for cervical screening, there are ways to make the test more comfortable and make sure you get the right support.

Read our tips for making cervical screening better >

No. Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust is a charity independent of the national cervical screening programme, GP surgeries and other clinics and cannot book a cervical screening appointment for you.

If you want to book a cervical screening appointment, contact your local GP. Some sexual health services in your area may also offer cervical screening. 

More information and support about cervical screening

Everyone has a different experience of cervical screening. Most people we speak to do not find cervical screening painful, but it may feel uncomfortable. If you have pain or any other problems, it is important to let your doctor or nurse know so they can support you.

Read our tips for making cervical screening better >

Whether it’s your first time or you have been before, going for cervical screening may make you anxious. If you have questions or need some emotional support, we are here for you:

We also have more information about cervical screening for:

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it. 


  • Clinical Knowledge Summary: Cervical screening. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. August 2017. Accessed January 2020. 
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Cervical Screening and Cervical Cancer. Royal College of Nursing. June 2018. 

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

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What happens after cervical screening? >

Find out how cervical screening samples are tested.

Date last updated: 
17 Apr 2020
Date due for review: 
07 Jan 2022

Have a question? Need to talk?

Call our free helpline now on 0808 802 8000.

Have a chat with our trained helpliners to get your questions answered. Get information on HPV, cervical screening, the HPV vaccine, cell changes (abnormal cells) or cervical cancer. No question is too big or too small.