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Cervical screening test

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Regular cervical screening is the best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer. Recent changes to cervical screening in Australia make it easier for women and people with a cervix to be screened.

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What is the cervical screening test?

The cervical screening test checks the health of your cervix. This test is like a pap smear, but it specifically checks for human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is a common virus that can change cells in your cervix. It is the most common cause of cervical cancer.

Most people with HPV don’t have symptoms, which is why screening is so important.

If your test shows you have HPV, it usually takes 10 or more years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. It is rare for an HPV infection to turn into cervical cancer.

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Do you need a cervical screening test?

You need a cervical screening test if you:

  • are a woman or person with a cervix
  • are aged 25 to 74
  • have ever had sexual contact with another person, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

It’s important to have a test, even if you have been vaccinated for HPV.

How often do you need to have cervical screening tests?

You need to have a test every five years between the ages of 25 and 74.

If your test does not show HPV, you can wait five years for your next test.

If your test shows HPV, your healthcare provider will talk to you about what you need to do next.

Why do you only need a test every five years?

Screening every five years is very safe. This is because the old way of testing every two years (pap smear) only tested for changes in cervical cells. The new cervical screen tests for HPV, which can lead to changes in cervical cells. This helps to detect changes earlier.

Where can you have a cervical screening test?

Tests are available from:

  • your doctor
  • community health centres
  • women’s health centres
  • family planning clinics or sexual health centres
  • specialist health services (e.g. for Aboriginal or LGBTQIA+ communities).

How is the cervical screening test done?

You can:

  • get your healthcare provider to take a cervical sample
  • take your own vaginal sample (self-collection).

Healthcare provider

If your healthcare provider takes your sample, you will need to take off your clothes below the waist and lie on your back with your knees apart. You will also be given a sheet to cover yourself.

The doctor or nurse will gently insert a speculum (duck-bill-shaped device) into your vagina. This holds your vagina open so they can see your cervix. They will then use a small brush to take a sample of cells from your cervix. This might feel strange, but it shouldn’t hurt. The sample is put into a tube and sent to the laboratory for testing.

You can ask for a female healthcare provider if you prefer.

Self-collection

Taking your own sample is just as safe and accurate as having a healthcare provider take your sample.

If you choose to take your own sample, you will need to do this at your health centre.

Your healthcare provider will explain how to do the test. You can do it in private or ask them to help.

Self-collection involves inserting a swab into your vagina. You gently move the swab in a circular motion for 10 to 30 seconds. This may feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt. You remove the swab from your vagina and place it back in the packaging provided. This sample is sent to the laboratory for testing.

Read this guide about how to collect your own sample

Benefits of self-collection

The option of self-collection means more people will be tested and protected from cervical cancer.

For example, you may be more likely to take your own sample if you:

  • live in a rural or remote area
  • identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
  • speak a language other than English at home
  • feel uncomfortable about the procedure due to cultural beliefs
  • have experienced sexual trauma or violence
  • find the procedure embarrassing.

Is self-collection okay for everyone?

Self-collection is not recommended if you have unusual vaginal bleeding, pain or discharge. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider.

Do you need a test if you’ve had the HPV vaccine?

While the HPV vaccine is highly effective, it doesn’t prevent all HPV infections. So, if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you still need to have regular cervical screening tests.

What happens after your test?

After your sample is taken, it is sent to a laboratory for testing.

If your test does not show HPV, you can wait five years for your next test.

Your results will go to the National Cancer Screening Register (NCSR). This service will also send you reminders about when to have your next test.

If your test shows HPV, your healthcare provider will talk to you about what you need to do next.

What you can do

Regular cervical screening is the best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer. You can:

  • ask your doctor when your next cervical screening test is due, and register your details with the National Cancer Screening Register to receive regular reminders
  • go to your appointments when your tests are due
  • learn about self-collection and decide if it’s something you’re interested in
  • talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine if you haven’t already had it
  • practise safe sex (e.g. use condoms or dams) to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infection (STI), which can increase your risk of cervical cancer
  • avoid smoking to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

More information

You can find more information about cervical screening and self-collection at the National Cervical Screening Program

You can register or update your details at the National Cancer Screening Register

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at August 2022.

Last updated: 17 August 2022 | Last reviewed: 11 August 2022

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