By Dr Alex Eskander, Consultant Gynaecologist, The Gynae Centre, www.gynae-centre.co.uk
When it comes to reproductive health, arguably, nothing is more important than the smear test. Taking just a few minutes to carry out, this simple procedure detects precancerous cells which could one day develop into cancer. 99.8% of cases of cervical cancer in the UK are preventable. With around 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer every year in the UK alone, this two-minute test could save your life.
Whether you’ve had smear tests before or you’ve yet to have your first, I’ve outlined some useful dos and don’ts for smear tests to make your experience as quick and comfortable as possible.
1. Do ask your gynaecologist or nurse to explain what they are doing
If you’re nervous about your smear test, it’s important to let your gynaecologist or nurse know so they can explain each step and do everything they can to help put you at ease. I also recommend reading about other women’s experiences online so you feel prepared and know what to expect prior to your appointment. Most women who are nervous about their smear tests often report that their smear wasn’t as uncomfortable as they were expecting.
2. Do tell your gynaecologist about your sexual history or anything that is relevant to your vaginal health
Before your smear test, it’s important to disclose if you’ve never had intercourse or put anything into your vagina before. Additionally, more and more women are experiencing a condition called vaginismus, where the pain is experienced during penetration (whether that’s from a tampon, fingers or sexual intercourse). Telling your gynaecologist about any relevant information will help to ensure your smear test experience is as stress-free as possible.
3. Do go for your smear test even if you’ve had the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination
Many women believe that if they have had the HPV vaccination they do not need a smear test, but there are many strains of HPV and the vaccination only protects against certain strains of the virus. So, although the vaccination reduces your risk of getting HPV, it still leaves you open to getting the virus and it’s just as important to have a regular smear test whether you’ve had the vaccination or not.
4. Don’t tense up
Feeling tense is probably one of the biggest reasons smear tests are uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but the best thing you can do to make it more comfortable is to try and relax. The more relaxed you are, the less discomfort you will experience when the speculum is inserted and opened. Some patients like to bring earphones with them and listen to calming music during the smear test, others like to bring a friend or family member to distract them. Deep meditation-like breathing can also be very effective for relaxation, but you should do whatever works for you.
5. Don’t use any products inside the vagina prior to your appointment
Avoid using vaginal creams, spermicides or sexual lubricants 24 hours before your smear test. These can make it a challenge to analyse the sample of cervical cells accurately. Even douching (which is not recommended as it can disrupt the delicate pH balance and can cause problems) with water can wash away abnormal cells.
6. Don’t book in when you’re on your period
Although it is possible to carry out a smear test during your period, I recommended that this is avoided if at all possible. When there is a lot of blood in the sample it can make it much more difficult to analyse the cervical cells in the lab and see any abnormalities. For best results, I recommend booking in your smear test mid-cycle.