Cervical Cytology

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Also known as: Cervical screening test; Liquid based cytology test (LBC)
Formal name: Smear Test; PAP Test; Papanicolaou smear; cervical/vaginal cytology

At a Glance

Why Get Tested?

To screen for early abnormalities (pre-cancer) which, if left untreated, could lead to cervical cancer.

When to Get Tested?

In England, all woman between the ages of 25 and 64 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every three to five years, depending on age.
In Wales those between 20 and 64 are eligible for screening at 3 yearly intervals.
In Scotland those between 20 and 60 are eligible for screening 3 at yearly intervals.
In Northern Ireland those between 20 and 64 are eligible for screening at 5 yearly intervals.
In the Republic of Ireland those between 25 and 44 are eligible for screening at 3 yearly intervals and those between 45 and 60 at 5 yearly intervals.

Sample Required?

Cells from the cervix (neck of the womb)

Test Preparation Needed?

You may be asked to refrain from sexual intercourse for 24-48 hours before the test, avoid using vaginal creams or foams in the 48 hours before the test and book the test appointment 10-14 days after the beginning of your last menstrual period.

The Test Sample

What is being tested?

A cervical cytology test is a test used to detect abnormal or potentially abnormal cells from the uterine cervix (neck of the womb).

How is the sample collected for testing?

The method consists of sampling cells from the cervix. A doctor or nurse inserts an instrument (a speculum) to open the woman's vagina so that they can see the cervix. The sample of cells from the surface of the cervix is obtained using a small brush. Most women consider the procedure to be only mildly uncomfortable although some have more discomfort, but it should not be painful. The specimen containing cells from the cervix is put into a special liquid preservative. This cell suspension is processed in the laboratory and the cells are transferred onto a glass slide, stained, and examined under a microscope. The fluid may also be tested for high risk human papilloma virus (HPV) types.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

You may be asked to refrain from sexual intercourse for 24-48 hours before the test, avoid using vaginal creams or foams in the 48 hours before the test and book the test appointment 10-14 days after the beginning of your last menstrual period.

The Test

Common Questions

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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.