Cervical cancer screening

Gynaecological examination bed with stirrups for cervical smear test

Cervical cancer screening involves a smear test, carried out by a doctor or nurse. The smear test looks for early changes in the cells of the cervix, which could lead to cancer if not found early. It takes less than five minutes, and it may be uncomfortable but it's not painful.

Cervical screening is important because you don't usually have symptoms when you have abnormal changes in the cells of your cervix. Screening is the only way to detect these changes early before they become a cancer, and this could save your life., and this could save your life.

Everyone who has a cervix and is aged between 25 and 65 should have a regular smear test, 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 44 years of age, you should have a smear test every three years.
  • If you're between 45 and 65 years of age, you should have a smear test every five years.

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

If you get results that show abnormal cells, it doesn't mean you have cancer. It could be due to other problems, like an infection in your cervix.

It does mean you'll need to have another smear test and a detailed examination of your cervix, called a colposcopy, which is done much in the same way as a smear test.

A colposcopy looks at the cells in your cervix using a microscope. If they find changes to the cell, they can be treated easily, which prevents them from becoming cancer cells.

What is a cervical screening?

Cervical screening is a simple procedure where a doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix to look for early changes that, if left untreated, could become cancer.

What's involved in cervical cancer screening?

The test involves the use of a small, specialised brush to gently remove a sample of cells from the cervix.

To do this the doctor or nurse will use an instrument called a speculum to hold the vaginal walls open. The test can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful.

Where do I go to get one?

If you wish to get a test, talk to your GP or local family planning clinic.

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 to a specialist to read the sample and check for any abnormalities. 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 covers women aged 25-60, but any woman can contact their GP to get a smear test.

Should I get checked?

Cervical screening is a test for cervical cancer when a woman has no signs or symptoms. It’s life-saving because it spots changes before they develop into cancer, meaning that women can be treated earlier to stop the cancer occurring.

For this reason the Irish Cancer Society would always advise women to attend their 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), a 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.

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.

I heard there are new HPV tests. Is this a good thing? What’s the difference with the old one?

HPV DNA testing is set to be introduced in autumn 2018. This test was advised by HIQA last year.

Their Health Technology Assessment found that changing to primary HPV testing would reduce the number of screenings each woman has in her lifetime, while providing better accuracy in detecting precancerous abnormalities and early stage invasive cervical cancer. 

Women would experience no change in how the cervical screening sample is collected. It would lead to 20% more pre-cancers detected, 30% more cancers and mean screening moving from every 3 years to every 5 years for women who’ve had the HPV vaccine, which prevents 7 in 10 cases of cervical cancer.

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

More information on smear tests

To get your smear test, you can make an appointment with the thousands of GPs, nurses, and clinics all registered as smeartakers. You can find a full list on at 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. If you're already registered with CervicalCheck, they'll call you when your next smear test is due.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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