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    Smear Test: Everything You Need to Know, Whether It Hurts To How Long It Takes

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    The practitioner will slowly insert a small tube known as a speculum into the vagina (don’t worry, they can use lubrication if needed or you can ask for a smaller speculum), which gently opens up to reveal the top of the cervix. Then, a few cells are collected using a soft brush, which are then sent to the labs and tested for abnormalities and human papillomavirus (HPV).

    Who is eligible for a smear test?

    Females under the age of 25 are not invited for a smear test due to the fact that cervical cancer is rare in this age group, and cell changes in that age group often return to normal. 

    If you have a cervix and are between the ages of 25 and 49, you will be invited to attend a screening every three years (you usually receive a letter in the post through your GP). Those aged 50-64 are invited once every five years, and women over 65 are only invited if one of their last three tests were abnormal.

    “If you are a trans-man or a non-binary person and have a cervix, you should be screened too,” Dr John Butler, a consultant gynaecological oncology surgeon at The Royal Marsden and medical director of The Lady Garden Foundation, advises. “However, if you are registered with your GP as male, you may not automatically be sent an invitation. Instead, you can speak to your GP about booking an appointment.”

    Does it hurt?

    Everyone’s experience of a smear test is different, with the majority of women reporting no pain or mild discomfort. The new HPV tests are arguably less invasive that the traditional cytology tests, and do not involve the use of an instrument known as a speculum that opens the vagina in order to access the cervix. Instead, the HPV tests involve inserting a small swab (similar to a cotton bud but longer) into the vagina, and rotating it for 20 seconds. 

    However, some women do find that the test is painful and there are many psychological factors that come into play and make the situation worse. The most important thing is to remember that you can ask to stop at any point, and also to tell your nurse or doctor if you are feeling anxious as they will be able to make suggestions to help you feel more comfortable. Many people find the at-home HPV testing kits a great alternative to attending an in-clinic appointment, especially is they find the process embarrassing or if they are facing cultural barriers to an in-person test. 

    “It’s very normal to be nervous about a smear test, but there are lots of ways that you can make a smear test more comfortable,” says Rebecca. “You can take someone you trust with you, or listen to something with headphones to distract you. Lots of people find it helpful to wear a skirt or dress so that they feel less exposed. Try to remember that the actual test is over in about a minute. Most importantly, make sure you speak to your nurse and let them know that you’re nervous – they have done this test many times before and want to put you at ease.”

    What is the new HPV test?

    The new HPV test that will replace traditional cytology cervical testing is a simple swab test that is performed by a doctor or nurse at your GP practice, or in some cases, via an at-home testing kit supplied by the NHS. Once completed, the swab is sent off to the labs for analysis to check for the presence of high risk HPV strains. 

    What happens if my results come back as abnormal?

    First of all, do not panic. An abnormal smear test or a positive HPV result does not mean you have cancer. “If your results are abnormal, you may be told you have HPV or cell changes. Finding out your result is abnormal may be worrying, but try to remember that HPV and cell changes are not cervical cancer. You may be invited for further tests. Most cell changes will get better by themselves, or with treatment.”

    UPI

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