Simple Steps For A Happy Smear Test: Have You Had Yours?

Been putting off your next smear appointment? We put some of your most common smear-related fears to a health professional.

Woman at the Gynecologist

Fact: Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide, making it all the more important that you make your next smear test.

The disease develops when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow out of control. If left undetected, they can spread to the surrounding tissue, causing cervical cancer.

The good news is that it’s largely preventable, and if caught early it has a very good chance of a cure. Luckily, smear tests can detect abnormal cells on the cervix before they turn into cancer and are the single most effective way for you to really prevent and detect the disease, so it’s essential you make time for a routine pap.

But first, a little education. As part of European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, we put some of your most common smear test and cervical cancer-related questions to a health care professional. Here are her answers…

What are the signs and symptoms?

Looking for signs and symptoms of any cancer can be daunting, but if it can potentially save the life of a friend, a family member or your own. “Cervical cancer is most often symptomless in its pre-cancerous and early stages, which is why cervical screening is so important,” points out Shirley McQuade, Medical Director at Dublin Well Woman Centre.

The symptoms can be bleeding after sex, bleeding between periods, unusual vaginal discharge or pain during sex. These are all signs that something is out of whack. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important that these are investigated by your doctor as soon as possible.

Can I reduce my risk of cervical cancer?

Practice smart sex and use a condom: Unless you’re in a long term relationship make sure to use a condom. This can help reduce the risk of spreading HPV (the human papilloma virus). It still doesn’t provide 100% protection, but certainly reduces your risk.

Get vaccinated: If you weren’t already vaccinated in school you may want to consider getting the HPV vaccine. Even if you’ve had unprotected sex with multiple partners, many doctors agree that there are still significant benefits of the jab.

Go for your pap smear: Ultimately, this is the most effective way of preventing cervical cancer. Bottom line.

How much does it cost?

Ireland provides free, regular smear tests for all women aged 25 to 60 living here. So, take advantage of this free service. It takes seconds to check when your test is due. Register, change personal details or find a convenient smear taker at or freephone 1800 45 45 55.

Does a pap smear hurt?

Lying face up, half naked on an exam table in a cold vacuous room with a stranger might not sound like your idea of fun, but we promise it’s not as bad as you think. Once you’re relaxed and comfortable, the doctor will gently insert a speculum (a device used to open your vaginal walls). It feels slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.

Breath, relax and before you know it, you’ll be done. The procedure is over in less than a minute. One thing we recommend is to request a female doctor if you feel a little uncomfortable.

I have abnormal test results – what does this mean?

The Dublin Well Woman Centre screens thousands of women every year for possible cervical abnormalities. Getting an abnormal result on your pap smear can be scary, but the good news is that you’re in very good hands.

“If the smear is abnormal, it’s important to have a colposcopy to look at the cervix in more detail. Although don’t be alarmed, over 80% of abnormal smears are because of low grade changes and almost all of these will go away by themselves without any treatment,” assures Shirley.

The takeaway message? Early detection is key to fighting off cervical cancer. “It’s essential that women from 25 onwards have the test – minor changes can be monitored and treatment can be easily given if changes persist,” Shirley explains. “The average age for diagnosis of cervical cancer is age 45 and this unfortunately is much more likely in women who have not had regular testing.”

Stuck for time? The Well Woman Clinic sees women before work, over lunchtime and in evening clinics and on Saturdays to try to make it as easy as possible to get tested. So, no excuses! It only takes a few minutes, is free and could save a life.

By Jennifer Conway