At What Age Should I Get A Smear Test?
The Debrief: As the family of Rachel Sarjantson campaign to lower the age limit on cervical screening tests, we give you a quick need-to-know guide
Following the sad news about Rachel Sarjantson, who died of cervical cancer at just 24, there have been renewed calls to lower the age at which women can get a cervical screening test. At the moment, women are invited for their first smear test at 25, unless they are considered at risk.
A cervical screening test, know to its friends as a ‘smear test’ is a way of checking for abnormal cells on your cervix. The cervix – to save you the Google image search I just did – is the opening where the bottom of your womb meets your vagina. It looks sort of like lychee, to be honest. You need to be registered with a GP to get invited for a smear test but can have them done at family planning clinics or at your doctor’s.
Abnormal cells on your cervix are fairly common - 1 in 20 women show some abnormal changes in the cells of their cervix. However, these cells often go back to normal on their own and are not necessarily a symptom of cervical cancer. However, in some cases abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous.
The age debate
Women aged between 25 and 49 are supposed to have a smear test every three years as cervical cancer mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45, although it can happen to women at any age. You will continue to have them all your adult life, just less frequently – every five years between the ages 50 and 64 and when you’re over 65 if you had abnormal tests.
The argument in favour of lowering the age for cervical screening tests is largely that it could save women like Rachel Sarjantson from a painful and premature death. Each time a woman in her early twenties dies of cervical cancer, we are reminded that women in the UK used to be screened at 20; that those deaths could, perhaps, have been avoided.
However, Rhiannon Lucy Cosset, who had an abnormal set of results at 25, has written in The Guardian against lowering the age limit for smear tests on the basis that ‘one in three women under the age of 25 will have an abnormal result (compared to one in 14 for women over 25)’. These figures, she argues, make the chance of getting an abnormal smear ‘so great that testing becomes fairly pointless’. And that the procedure to remove abnormal cells, to prevent them turning into cancer, can be unpleasant and even painful.
What is a smear test?
A smear test is not hugely fun, but no more uncomfortable than an STI test and only lasts a couple of seconds.
As part of your cervical screening test you will also have an HPV test – you can learn more about HPV on the NHS website.
The test for abnormal cells will either come back as normal, inadequate or abnormal. If it’s inadequate then you will probably have to repeat the test in three months as they couldn’t get enough cells the first time round. If it comes back abnormal it will probably be split into borderline (low risk), moderate or severe (high risk).
If your results are low risk then the sample will be tested for HPV and, if found, you will be offered a colposcope. This isn’t as bad as it sounds – it’s basically an examination of your cervix with a special microscope and feels very like having a smear test.
If your results are high risk then you will go straight to the colposcopy.
For lots more information about cervical screening tests visit the NHS website or speak to your GP.
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