If you're 25 or older, you've probably had your first smear test by now under the Cervical Check programme.
But even if you're under that age, you've probably heard mutterings about the dreaded smear. So what's it all about? Well, first things first, it's definitely NOT as bad as it sounds.
Here's what you'll need to know about your first smear test, and what to expect if the results are abnormal.
Why do we need a smear?
A smear test, or a cervical screening, simply tests for changes in the cells at the neck of the womb (the cervix). The cells in your vagina are a different shape to those inside the womb, so the cervix's 'transformation zone' is where any changes will be detected.
Basically, if anything looks out of place, that's where it'll be.
If left unchecked, certain cell changes can develop into cervical cancer. As these changes happen slowly, cervical cancer CAN be prevented, which is why us ladies require cervical screenings at least every three years from the age of 25 onwards.
What happens during a smear test – is it going to be super-painful?
Super-painful? No. A bit uncomfortable? Yes.
First things first, you'll be given a few minutes to get undressed from the waist down. You'll be given a gown or a paper sheet to cover up with, and asked to hop up on the exam table.
You may be asked to place your heels in stirrups, or else just to scooch down to the bottom of the table. Either way, don't get embarrassed – the doctor or nurse sees vaginas of all shapes and sizes every day.
Every. Single. Day.
Now for the fun part – the actual test. A plastic device called a speculum is inserted into your vagina, simply for the purpose of holding it open a little wider. You can expect to feel some pressure down there.
Then, a swab or brush is used to remove a sample of cells from your cervix. This is no different to any mouth swab you may have had at the dentist before, except you may feel a slight pinch as the cervix is a little more sensitive.
The gown or sheet will mean you won't see what's going on, which definitely makes things far less scary.
Afterwards, you'll be given a small pad to wear in case of any discharge or blood spotting, but otherwise you're fine to go about your business.
Can I forget about smears for three years after that?
If your results come back normal, yes. However, in many cases, an abnormal result may be found and you'll be called to your local hospital for a Colposcopy.
This basically a closer look at the cervix, for which the doctor will use a type of microscope (it doesn't go inside you), and may also apply some liquid dye to the area to help identify changes.
A colposcopy is nothing to worry about – abnormalities are extremely common and are taken as a very early warning that further changes MAY occur to the cells if left untreated. Being called back for a colposcopy does NOT mean that you have cervical cancer.
You'll be asked for a urine sample at the hospital, so be prepared for that.
Before your colposcopy, the doctor will explain exactly what's about to happen. As with the smear, you'll be asked to get undressed from the waist down before getting onto the exam table, and the speculum will be used.
If the doctor feels an even closer look is needed, another sample of cells will be taken from the area. This is called a cervical biopsy and at most you'll feel one or two pinches down there as it's taken.
If the area of abnormal cells is larger, the doctor may use local anaesthetic to avoid any pain for you.
What happens after a colposcopy?
As with the smear, you'll be given a pad to wear for the day. If you've had a cervical biopsy, there's a "nothing up there for one week" rule – so no sex, tampons, baths or swimming. Like with any small cut or wound elsewhere on your body, the cervix needs a little time to heal.
As well as some blood spotting, you may see some watery discharge that is sometimes grey in colour (because of the product used during the colposcopy).
If the bleeding is heavier than a normal period, you should visit your GP as there could be some infection.
Lab results can take 6 – 8 weeks to come back. If they're normal, you'll be sent an appointment for another smear in a year's time. If any pre-cancerous cells are detected, you'll be called back in to have them lasered off – another procedure that we promise sounds FAR scarier than it is.
Smear tests and all that follow might not be the most pleasant part of adult life, but they are oh-so important to preventing any health issues further down the line.