Cervical screening tests used to be known as ‘smear tests’. The NHS is moving towards a new way of testing that doesn’t always include taking smears.
If you’re planning a pregnancy and have not had a cervical screening test within the last three years, it is a good idea that you have the test before getting pregnant.
What is a cervical screening test?
A cervical screening is a way of checking if there are any abnormal (unusual) cells on the cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina).
It is your choice whether to have this check or not.
Why should I have a cervical screening test?
Abnormal cells can sometimes lead to cervical cancer. These cells usually return to normal on their own but they sometimes need to be removed.
Being checked regularly means that any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be found at an early stage and treated (if needed) to stop cancer growing.
Why do I need to do the test before getting pregnant?
Pregnancy can make it harder to know if your test result is normal or not. If you’re planning to get pregnant ask your GP if you are up to date with your cervical screening.
Where can I get tested?
All women aged 25 to 49 who are registered with a GP get a letter inviting them for cervical screening every three years.
If you’re planning a pregnancy there’s no need to wait for a letter. Contact your GP surgery to find out when your screening is due and tell your GP you are trying for a baby.
What happens after the test?
Most women will have a normal result. This means you have a very low risk of developing cancer before your next screening test in three years.
If slightly abnormal cells are found your sample will be tested for an infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). Some types of this virus can cause cervical cancer. If you have an HPV infection or if you have ‘very’ abnormal cells you be offered a test called a colposcopy (a simple procedure to look at the cervix) at your local hospital.
In some rare cases women may have possible cancer cells in their sample and will be referred to a specialist.
Are there any risks to having a cervical screening?
There are no risks in having a cervical screening test or, if you need one, a colposcopy.
If a colposcopy finds abnormal cells in your cervix you may be offered treatment to remove them.
There are various types of treatments and these can have side effects including:
- mild pain, similar to period pain
- light vaginal bleeding.
There is also a small risk of more serious complications such as:
- an infection
- a slightly increased risk of having a baby 1 to 2 months early in future pregnancies.
Sometimes, treatment to remove abnormal cells from your cervix can be done at the same time as a colposcopy if it's obvious that some of the cells in your cervix are abnormal. Speak to your doctor before your appointment if you have any concerns about the side effects of treatment.
I think I’m already pregnant. Am I too late to get tested?
If you’re pregnant you are usually advised to wait until three months after the baby is born if:
- you have had a screening test within 3 years and
- you never had an abnormal result before.
If abnormal cells are found you may need a colposcopy, which is also safe to have in pregnancy. Depending on the results you may be offered another colposcopy when you are around six months pregnant.
If you need any treatment this will be delayed until around three months after the baby is born. Try not to worry if this is the case. Any abnormal cells are unlikely to change much over the course of your pregnancy.