What is a Pap Smear and Why Should I get one?

It’s cervical health awareness month, so what better time to learn all about cervical health as we answer the question ‘what is a pap smear’. Let’s dive into why you should have regular cervical smear tests, and speak to a medical expert about the shocking numbers behind cervical screening.

Text '83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented with smear tests' - written on a purple and pink background

So firstly, what is a pap smear?

Also called a smear test or cervical screening, a pap smear is a test that checks the health of your cervix. The test helps to prevent cancer by collecting a small sample of cells and looking for any abnormalities, including the presence of HPV. A pap smear can catch cervical cancer early, or, in pre-cancer cases, if anything unusual is found it can be monitored and treated before cervical cancer can start to develop. 

What is the cervix?

The cervix is the narrower part of the bottom of the uterus and the opening to the womb from the vagina. The cervix can change position both during your cycle and in pregnancy. Cervical mucus can also give an indication of where you are in your cycle.   

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus spread by sexual contact that can cause changes in the cervix and potentially lead to cancer. A pap smear sample can also check for HPV. It’s worth noting that even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you are still at risk of cervical cancer, as this vaccine does not protect against all forms of HPV, so it’s still worth getting checked. 

Who should go for smear tests?

Anyone with a cervix should attend a smear test to check for HPV and abnormalities. In the US, women ages 21 to 65 are recommended to be checked every 3 years. In the UK, it’s recommended women ages 25 to 49 should get checked every 3 years. Women between 50 and 64 are recommended to get screened every 5 years.

Even if you’ve only had one sexual partner or not had sex for a long time, it’s still worth getting checked as you can have HPV for a long time without knowing about it. In addition to catching any abnormalities early, making cervical screening part of your routine can offer peace of mind.

What happens at a pap smear?

Not knowing what to expect at your first smear test might make it feel a little daunting. It’s worth remembering that healthcare professionals carry out thousands of these tests every year, so it’s just a routine check-up for them. Reading up on what happens at the appointment can be a helpful way to prepare for the test. Typically, a smear test takes only a few minutes and here’s a breakdown of what happens:

  1. You’ll be left on your own to undress behind a screen, you only need to take off your clothes below the waist. You’ll also have a sheet to cover your lower body.
  2. The healthcare professional will ask you to lie on a bed, with your legs bent, feet together and knees apart. 
  3. They’ll then gently insert a speculum (a smooth, tube-shaped instrument) into your vagina. A small amount of lubricant may be used to make it more comfortable.
  4. The speculum is opened so the cervix is visible. 
  5. A soft brush is then used to take a small sample of cells from your cervix. 
  6. The speculum is then closed and removed and you’ll be left to get dressed. 

The most important thing is that you feel comfortable and in control during the appointment. You can ask for the smear test to stop at any time – it’s OK to tell the nurse, doctor or gynecologist if you’re feeling uncomfortable. You can also bring someone with you to the appointment, and it’s totally acceptable to request a woman to carry out the screening if it makes you feel more at ease. 

What happens after the smear test?

Once the test is done your sample will be sent to the laboratory for testing, and you can continue your day as normal. You might experience a small amount of spotting after the smear test, this is common and shouldn’t last for long. Speak to a healthcare professional if you experience longer bleeding or a heavy bleed after a pap smear. 

Depending on how quickly it takes for the lab to process, you may need to wait a couple of weeks for your results to arrive. Try not to worry during this time. Most results come back as normal, and in some instances you might be asked to come back, this can simply mean that the test was unclear and the sample may need to be taken again. In the case of abnormalities, you may be monitored or asked to take another test on your cervix called a colposcopy.

Can you get a pap smear on your period?

You can get a smear test while on your period. However, the results may be affected by the blood cells in the sample and you may have to return to take another test if it’s not clear. Therefore, it’s better to schedule for a time when you’re not on your period to carry out a pap smear. 

Does a pap smear hurt?

The cervical smear test shouldn’t hurt. It may be uncomfortable for a few seconds and you may feel a bit of pressure caused by the speculum. If you are in pain or are feeling uncomfortable at any time, you can let the doctor or nurse know during the examination.

Why should I get tested?

A pap smear can save your life. Catching cervical cancer early can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, many of us fail to get checked regularly. Jack Pearson, Natural Cycles’ in-house Medical Expert, has eight years experience in reproductive health with a background of working in one of the UK’s busiest fertility clinics. We asked him to share his thoughts on why women shouldn’t put off going for a smear test.

“In 2019 cervical screening reached a 20 year low in the UK with 1 in 4 eligible women attending their screening. Screening only takes a few minutes and if everyone eligible attended, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented.* Keep your eyes peeled for those screening invitations and do not hesitate to book in at the earliest available opportunity. If you are unsure whether you are eligible for screening seek advice from your healthcare professional.” – Dr Jack Pearson PhD, (HCPC registered) Clinical Scientist

Key things to remember about a cervical smear test

  • A pap smear can help prevent cervical cancer, or catch it in the early stages
  • Women aged between 21 and 65 should consider cervical screening
  • The test takes only a few minutes and shouldn’t hurt
  • Thousands of these tests are performed every day
  • If everyone eligible took a test, most cervical cancer cases could be prevented

Learn more about your cycle

Thanks for reading – we hope you’ve learned a lot about the importance of a healthy cervix and you’ll consider booking in a pap smear today. At Natural Cycles we’re committed to closing the knowledge gap on reproductive health. Our app can be used to both plan pregnancy or prevent pregnancy, while also offering unique insights into your cycle. Natural Cycles also gives regular reminders, such as when PMS can be expected or when’s the best time to carry out a self-breast exam. Are you looking for a way to naturally get back in touch with your body?

*https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-launches-cervical-screening-saves-lives-campaign

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Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

By Jennifer Gray

A writer with passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray is Content Owner here at Natural Cycles. She’s making it her mission to close the knowledge gap on reproductive health.