Cervical screening

Also known as a cervical smear

Cervical screening is a test that looks for abnormal changes to the cells of the neck of your uterus (cervix). This is so treatment can be given before the abnormal cells develop into cancer.

What is a cervical smear test?

A cervical smear involves having a sample of cells taken from your cervix. These are then examined closely under a microscope. If any abnormal changes are seen, treatment can be provided. Without treatment, some cells with abnormal changes can develop into cervical cancer.

Image: Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ

Cervical smear tests are very important. Studies have shown that women who have cervical smear tests every 3 years have about a 90% reduction in their risk of developing cervical cancer. 

Who should have a cervical smear test?

Cervical smear tests are recommended for the following women:

  • All women from the age of 25 to 70 who have ever been sexually active should have regular smear tests, regardless of your vaccination status or sexual orientation. Women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of your uterus) need to check with your doctor or smear taker whether you still need to have cervical smear tests.
  • Women aged 70 years or older who did not have regular cervical smears prior to age 70 may be at risk of having undetected cervical lesions. Two consecutive normal smear samples should be collected before screening is stopped.

Prior to 1 November 2019, women aged 20–24 years of age were also screened, but the evidence showed that this provided little benefit to women in this age group and has the potential to cause harm. If you are in this age group and have already been screened, you should have your next cervical smear test when it is due, even if you are under 25. Other women will have your first smear test at the age of 25.

What happens during a cervical smear test?

Having a smear test only takes a few minutes. Some women find it a little uncomfortable, but it should not hurt.

A few cells are collected from your cervix and placed into a liquid solution that preserves the cells for testing. This sample is sent to the laboratory where a small sample is put onto a microscope slide. Using high magnification, the cervical cells can be checked for any abnormal changes. A report is written and sent to your smear taker.

Like any screening test this process is not 100% accurate. However, it does pick up most problems at an early stage and has prevented many women from developing cervical cancer.

Image: Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ 

See more information: Having a cervical smear test National Cervical Screening Programme, NZ

Who does a cervical smear test?

To have your cervical smear test, you need to see a nurse, doctor or other healthcare provider.

You can find smear takers at:

Let us know if there are other options available in your area. 

Your cervical smear results and what they mean

There are a number of changes that your smear test can show. If there are any abnormalities, you will be sent a letter or contacted by your smear taker. Sometimes follow-up tests are needed.

Read more about your results and what happens next if there are abnormalities:

What is the cervical screening programme?

The National Cervical Screening Programme, set up in 1990, aims to reduce the number of women in New Zealand who develop cervical cancer and the number who die from it. The National Screening Unit is responsible for organising the programme, which includes health promotion, smear taking, laboratory analysis of cervical smears, cervical biopsies and management of women with abnormal smear results.

For more information visit the National Cervical Screening website or freephone 0800 729 729.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about cervical screening. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Cervical screening Time to Screen, NZ

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.