What happens at a smear test, does it tell me if I have cervical cancer and is it painful?


A SMEAR test is something almost every woman in the UK will experience at some point – but the thought of a cervical screening test fills some with fear or embarrassment.

So, here’s everything you need to know about getting a “smear test” – from what the procedure is for to how it will make you feel.

Patient sitting on hospital bed
How often you need a smear test depends on your age, with every woman over 25 being invited for a screening
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What is the smear test for?

Cervical screening tests (referred to as smear tests in the past) are a preventative test used to detect abnormal cells on the cervix – the entrance to the womb from the vagina.

Detecting these cells and then removing them can prevent cervical cancer.

It’s not a test for cervical cancer itself. Most women’s results show everything is totally normal – the test picks up abnormalities in around 1 in 20 women.

Young female patient sitting on edge of hospital bed
A cervical screening test shouldn’t hurt – but it might be a bit uncomfortable
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Who is the smear test for?

Cervical screening is carried out under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme, which was introduced in the 1980s.

Every woman over the age of 25 who has a GP is invited for screening – and it doesn’t matter if you’re sexually active or not.

It is possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, but it’s extremely rare in women under 25.

How often do you need a smear test?

How often you need a cervical screening test depends on your age.

Women aged 25-49 are invited every three years, women aged 50-64 every five years and women over 65 are only invited if they haven’t been screened since they were 50, or if they have any recent abnormal test results.

Cervical screening rates in England are at their lowest level in 19 years, according to the charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust
Every woman over the age of 25 who has a GP is invited for screening
Getty Images

What happens during a smear test?

Cervical screening tests can be carried out at a GP practice, a well-woman clinic or a sexual health clinic. It’s usually done by a nurse, and you can ask for a female nurse.

You’re asked to remove your clothes from the waist down, and the nurse or doctor inserts a speculum, which holds the vaginal walls open.

Then, a small, gentle brush is used to collect cells from the surface of the cervix – and you will receive your results within two weeks.

Does the smear test hurt?

The test can be uncomfortable, but for most women it isn’t painful.

Relaxing much as possible and breathing slowly and deeply can help with discomfort – it sounds just typical but really, the more you worry about it, the worse it will be.



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