Cervical cancer screening

Gynaecological examination bed with stirrups for cervical smear test

Cervical cancer screening looks to see if you have any of the high-risk types of human papillomavirus (hrHPV) that cause cervical cancer. If hrHPV is found, your same test sample will be checked to see if you have any abnormal (pre-cancerous) cells in your cervix.

This is a new way of screening. It is called HPV cervical screening. It was introduced in Ireland in March 2020.

Cervical cancer screening not a test for cancer, it's a test to spot people at risk. Cervical screening is important because it can detect abnormal changes early before they become a cancer. This could save your life.

It's estimated that cervical screening can prevent 3 out of 4 cervical cancer cases.

Everyone who has a cervix and is aged between 25 and 65 should have a regular cervical screening tests, whether they're single or married, have sex with men or women, have had the HPV vaccine, have stopped having babies or are post-menopausal.

  • If you're between 25 and 29 years of age, you will usually have a cervical screening test every 3 years.
  • If you're between 30 and 65 years of age, you will usually have a cervical screening test every 5 years.

It's safe to wait for 5 years between tests if you do not have a high-risk HPV infection.

The best time to have your test is halfway through your cycle: that's 10-14 days after the first day of your period (if you're having your periods).

 

No screening test is 100% effective. If you have any worries or symptoms, such as pain in your pelvis or abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, go to your GP without delay.

What is a cervical screening?

Cervical screening is a simple procedure where a doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix. These are checked for infection with HPV types known to increase the risk of cervical cancer (hrHPV).

If no hrHPV is found

You should have your next scheduled screening test. The risk of developing cervical cancer before your next screening test is very low.  

If hpHPV is found

The sample of cells will be checked to see if the cells have any abnormal changes, called CIN.

If no changes are found: You will have a repeat test after a year to check if the infection has cleared up.

 If changes are found: It doesnt mean you have cancer. Changes can be caused by other things, such as an infection in your cervix. You will be referred to hospital for a colposcopy, which lets the doctor closely examine your cervix using a light and a microscope. This can show if you need any treatment.

Most people who have a colposcopy won't need active treatment, but will need to have regular screening tests until the hrHPV infection has cleared.

If you have treatment for abnormal changes (CIN), it is usually very successful in stopping cancer from developing.

How is the test done?

You lie on a couch with your knees drawn up and spread apart. The doctor or nurse gently puts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, which is opened to show your cervix. Next a sample of cells is gently removed from your cervix using a small, specialised brush. The sample is sent to a laboratory where it can be tested for HPV and, if necessary, abnormal changes.

 The test can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful.

Where do I go to get one?

You can have a test at your GP or local family planning clinic.  If you're aged 25-65, CervicalCheck should send you a letter about your test when it's due.  Check with Cervical Check if you're not sure when your next test is due.  

 

How long does it take?

Only a few minutes.

When will I get my results?

Once the test is complete the sample will be taken and tested for high-risk HPV. (hrHPV). If hrHPV is found, the cells in the sample will be checked for any abnormal changes. The results will then be returned to your doctor or nurse, who will then contact you about them.

Results are typically available within four weeks.

Can anyone get one? Do you have to be above or below a certain age?

The CervicalCheck programme offers free cervical screening between the ages of 25-65, but anyone can contact their GP about getting a test.

Should I get checked?

Cervical screening identifies people at higher risk of developing cancer and can find abnormal changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. It’s life-saving because it can spot changes before cancer develops and before you have symptoms. If abnormal changes are found early, you can have treatment to try to stop the cancer developing.

This is why the Irish Cancer Society would always advise you to attend your screening appointments.

If you have any signs or symptoms of cervical cancer you should immediately contact your doctor, who may then carry out advanced tests as required.

Signs and symptoms include unusual vaginal bleeding (between periods, after sex or after the menopause), an unusual vaginal discharge that may smell unpleasant, or discomfort or pain during sex or in the pelvic area. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.

Can I be confident the test will be carried out properly?

Yes. The cervical screening is a simple, harmless procedure carried out by trained professionals. The latest sensitive methods are used to identify the strains of HPV that can potentially cause cancer.

Is there an option to get a test privately or publicly?

You can get a test privately, however there may be a charge. Public tests through CervicalCheck are free.

If I go privately, is the test covered by my health insurance?

This will differ by insurance provider and policy and should be checked with them beforehand.

What’s the difference between the new cervical screening and the old smear tests?

A new way of screening was introduced in March 2020.  HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. The new screening test looks to see if you have any of the high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer. If you do, your sample is then checked for abnormal cells.

The old smear test looked for abnormal cells first. But finding HPV first is a better way to screen for cervical cancer. Research shows that HPV testing:

  • Prevents more cancers
  • Means most people will need fewer screening tests
  • Is better at finding pre-cancerous abnormalities and early-stage invasive cervical cancer.

If you have high-risk HPV infection you can be monitored with repeat screening tests. If there are any changes to cells in your cervix you can have treatment to try to stop cancer developing.

Read more about the links between HPV and several types of cancer.

More information on cervical screening

CervicalCheck is the national cervical screening programme. It provides free cervical screening to people aged 25-65 resident in the Republic of Ireland.

You can make an appointment with the thousands of GPs, nurses, and clinics registered with CervicalCheck. To get registered, to check if you're on the register, or if you have any questions, call them on 1800 45 45 55.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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