Cervical screening

Also known as a cervical smear

Cervical screening is a test that looks for abnormal changes to the cells of the lower end of your uterus (cervix). Treatment can be given before the abnormal cells develop into cancer.

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening involves having a sample of cells taken from your cervix. These are then examined closely under a microscope. Some abnormal changes can resolve on their own, others may need treatment to prevent the cells from developing into cervical cancer. Studies have shown that up to 90% of cervical cancers can be prevented by regular cervical screening.

Image: Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ

Who should have cervical screening?

Cervical screening is recommended for the following people with a cervix or vagina between 25 and 69 years of age:

  • Anyone who has ever been sexually active should have regular screening, regardless of your HPV vaccination status  or sexual orientation. People with a hysterectomy (removal of your uterus/womb) should check with your health provider whether you still need to be screened.
  • People aged 70 years or older who were not regularly screened prior to age 70 may be at risk of having undetected cervical abnormalities, so 2 samples should be taken after age 70, and screening can cease if both results are normal. 

Prior to 1 November 2019, people aged 20–24 years of age were also screened, but the evidence shows that screening provides little benefit in this age group. People under 25 who have started screening should continue to be screened. 

What happens during a cervical screening test?

Having the test only takes a few minutes. Some people find it a little uncomfortable, but it should not hurt. It’s best to avoid having the test during your period (menstruation)

A few cells are collected from your cervix using a small soft brush via your vagina. The cells are placed into a liquid solution that preserves the cells for testing. This is sent to the laboratory where a small sample is put onto a slide. Using a microscope with high magnification, the cervical cells are then checked for any abnormal changes. The sample may also be tested for HPV (human papilloma virus). A report is sent to your health provider who will inform you about the results.

There is always a small chance that some abnormal cells may not be found by the test. Abnormal changes to the cervical cells progress very slowly, so it is very likely that any abnormal cells that are missed will be picked up at the next test. 

Image: Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ 

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

Who does cervical screening?

You can be tested at:

  • your GP’s clinic – if you would prefer a female doctor or nurse, ask when making the appointment
  • community health services, eg, Māori health services, Pasifika health services or women’s health services
  • Family Planning clinics – these are free for under 22-year-olds and low cost for people with a Community Services Card (see clinic fees) 
  • sexual health services.

Phone 0800 729 729 for local options in your area.    

Your cervical screening results and what they mean

Follow up tests may be needed if there are any abnormalities. Read more about your results and the next steps 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 people in Aotearoa 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 promoting and coordinating cervical screening services, and the provision of laboratory and colposcopy services (for the management of people with abnormal 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

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. She is looking forward to further study with Otago University in public health to learn about how we can reduce preventable disease and inequalities.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Wellington Last reviewed: 23 Feb 2021