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 get better 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 stop if both results are normal.
Note that this may be relevant for some transgender men and non-binary people, including those assigned female at birth (AFAB).
Before 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 menstrual period.
Here’s how it usually works:
- The health professional doing the test will discuss what will happen with you – make sure they have explained it clearly.
- You can lie on your side or your back (whichever is more comfortable) with your knees bent up. Let the smear taker know what works best for you.
- It’s up to you how modest you want to be – cover up with the sheet provided if it feels better.
- They will open your vagina gently with a plastic or metal speculum.
- They will then use a small, soft brush to take a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix.
- Once that's done, you can get dressed.
- They will tell you how you will get your results.
- Your test sample is sent to a laboratory and checked for any cell changes.
- Your results will be sent to your health clinic after a couple of weeks.
- Further tests or treatment will be arranged if your results show that you need it.
|You may find it a little bit uncomfortable, but if you feel pain or discomfort at any time let the person taking your test know straight away. If cervical screening is usually uncomfortable or painful, talk to your healthcare provider about options.|
Image: Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ
Tips to help make things easier
Having a cervical smear can feel a bit awkward. Everyone has their own way of making it work. You may find the following tips help make your experience more comfortable:
- wear a skirt you can leave on
- use the sheet or blanket provided to keep yourself covered and comfortable
- ask for a female smear taker
- ask whether someone from your culture can carry out the test for you
- try to breathe deeply and relax your legs
- try lying on your side
- take a friend or whānau member for support
- get your test done with a friend.
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
After they have been collected, your cervical cells are sent to a laboratory where they are checked for any abnormal changes. The sample may also be tested for HPV (human papilloma virus). A report is sent to your healthcare provider who will tell you about the results.
Follow-up tests may be needed if there are any abnormalities. Read more about your results and the next steps if there are abnormalities:
- Cervical screening – understanding your results Time to Screen, NZ
- Having a colposcopy Time to Screen, NZ
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.
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.
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
|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. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.|