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Turning 25 this year? Here's what to expect at your first smear test

Don’t worry! It’s really not as bad as you think.

shutterstock_1290409300 Source: Shutterstock/Aaron Amat

IF YOU WERE born in 1994, this year you’ll have to come to terms with the fact that you’re now officially in your mid-twenties. Scary, isn’t it? 

Almost as scary as the prospect of getting your first cervical screening test (or, smear test, as they’re commonly known). If you’ve never been to a gynaecologist, had an STI test or had any medical issues with your reproductive system, the thoughts of going for your first smear test might be even more daunting. Embarrassing as it might be, having never shown your bits to a doctor in any of the above scenarios is all the more reason to go and get checked out. 

You’re not the only person out there who’s embarrassed about going for a smear test. In the UK, 35% of women under 35 have ignored their latest screening invitation, according to The Guardian. The Guardian also reported that in a survey conducted by Jo’s Cervical Cancert Trust, 71% of women said they felt scared of the prospect of their smear test, 75% said they felt vulnerable and 81% said that they were putting it off because they were embarrassed. 58% also said that they were scared that it would hurt. 

Migrants and people from different cultural backgrounds are at a disadvantage too, with many putting off cervical screenings because of the language barrier, or traditional viewpoints they hold. 

shutterstock_631110185 Source: Shutterstock/Iryna Inshyna

What is a smear test?

A smear test, also known as a cervical screening or a Pap test, is a test carried out on a sample of cells from the cervix. This test checks for any abnormalities that might be indicative of cervical cancer. 

PastedImage-38801 Source: HSE

Do I really need to get one? 

If you are one of the 3.85 billion people on the planet with a cervix then yeah, basically.

Every year, 300 Irish women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, a disease which develops slowly over a number of years. It’s detectable pretty early on, if any abnormalities show up in your test. If you’re aware of the cervical screening scandal that’s currently going on in Ireland, you’ll know that early detection is so important. It can be the difference between life and death in some cases.

A lot of women were really let down by the Irish health service, but you shouldn’t let that put you off going to your appointment. Instead, look at the brave women who have come forward and shared their stories in the hopes of fixing the system and giving the rest of us a better chance. 

If you are sexually active, you should go for a smear test regularly (every 3 years if you are aged 25-44, and every 5 years if you are aged 45-60). You still need to get a smear test even if you got the HPV vaccine, and even if you’re not in a heterosexual relationship. 

What happens when you get a smear test?

Once you hit 25, you get an invitation letter. Many have described this as their Hogwarts letter, because if you ignore it, you just get another one. And another one. They may or may not begin to come down your chimney if you ignore them for long enough. This letter will direct you to a website where you can find the closest smear taker in your area. You can choose from 4,500 across the country. 

When you arrange an appointment and arrive on the day of your smear test, the nurse will give you a bit of privacy so that you can undress from the waist down. If this is the part you find embarrassing, just think of how many times the nurses go through the same routine every single day. They’re not going to judge you.

In fact, in a half hour’s time when they’re with the next patient, they won’t even remember what your vagina looks like. Have you ever worked in retail? Do you get home from work at the end of the night and remember what every single customer’s face looked like? Nah. And there are way fewer distinguishing features between vaginas than there are between faces. 

Once you’re lying down and comfortable, the nurse will insert a speculum into your vagina and use a small brush to take a sample. It’ll only take about five minutes. 

PastedImage-53158 Source: HSE

Does it hurt? 

For most people it’s only just a little bit uncomfortable – if there is any sensation at all. Think about it – there aren’t a lot of nerve endings inside of you. Can you feel your organs touching off of each other right now? Sorry for that really weird visual. Now, that’s not to say you don’t have any feeling inside of your vagina/womb, as we all know, your reproductive system can give you a very painful reminder of what it’s capable of every month.

While the vast majority of people say that the smear test is more uncomfortable than painful, some people do find it painful. If you suffer with Vaginismus (the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina, which can make penetrative sex difficult or impossible), let the nurse know once you arrive for your appointment. There’s no point in hoping for the best and making yourself uncomfortable. The nurse will be glad you mentioned it, and they’ll know what to do as the condition is fairly common. 

Even if you don’t have Vaginismus, you should let the nurse know that you’re experiencing pain, if that is the case. They’ll most likely check in with how you’re feeling anyway.

What happens after the test is completed?

Your test results will be sent to your GP or clinic, and you’ll receive a letter from the HSE letting you know that your test results are available. This letter will give you further advice, based on whether your test results are normal or abnormal.

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About the author:

Kelly Earley

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