You may be wondering if it’s safe to have a cervical screening test while you’re pregnant, and whether the benefits outweigh any risks. Routine cervical screening is the best way to protect yourself against cervical cancer. Of the 800 women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in Australia, 1 in 5 were never screened or were not up to date with screening.
What is cervical screening?
Cervical screening is a simple way to check the health of your cervix. The cervix is the opening of the womb (uterus) at the top of the vagina. The cervical screening test looks for evidence of human papillomavirus (HPV), is a virus that can cause changes to cells in your cervix — which can develop into cervical cancer.
The cervical screening test has replaced the Pap test (or, ‘smear’), which was offered to women every 2 years.
During a cervical screening test, an instrument called a speculum is gently inserted into the vagina, so the health provider performing the screen can see your cervix. A soft spatula or ‘broom’ type brush is then used to collect the sample. The cervical screening test looks and feels the same as the Pap test. The procedure might feel a bit uncomfortable but shouldn’t hurt.
How often should I have a cervical screening test?
Cervical screening can be done every 5 years, if your results are normal. You should have the test if:
- you’re aged between 25 and 74 years
- you have ever been sexually active
- you have a cervix
If you’ve had a Pap test before, your first cervical screening test should be 2 years after your last Pap test.
It’s best to start cervical screening at 25 years of age — studies show there’s no extra benefit to testing women under 25. While women under 25 don’t need routine cervical screening, if you have pain during sex, or unusual bleeding or discharge at any age, see your health-care provider as soon as you can.
If you are under 25 years and were previously screened, and received an abnormal test result, you should continue to follow your doctor's advice.
I'm pregnant — can I have a cervical screening test?
Cervical screening can be performed at any time, including before becoming pregnant and during your pregnancy. Your pregnancy might be the first chance your health-care provider has to offer you a cervical screening test. Cervical cancer tends to be diagnosed in women who aren’t routinely screened.
Is it part of standard antenatal care?
You may be asked about your cervical screening history during your first antenatal visit, and offered cervical screening if you haven't had one within the recommended time. This is an important opportunity to take steps to keep yourself healthy and well, throughout your pregnancy and beyond.
What is 'self-collection' cervical screening and can this be done during pregnancy?
Self-collection is where you are shown how to collect your own sample for cervical screening. Self-collection is not recommended if you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant. Your health provider will conduct the cervical screening test for you.
Is there any danger to the baby?
It’s safe to have a cervical screening test during your pregnancy. The benefits to your health outweigh any risks to your baby.
Whatever the outcome of the screening test, it’s generally safe to continue your pregnancy – since HPV infection during pregnancy doesn’t usually affect the baby. Even if there are abnormal cells on the cervix, it’s very rare for this to progress into cancer during a pregnancy.
That’s why, in most cases, your health-care provider will wait until after your baby is born to do a repeat test and, if necessary, treat cervical cancer.
What happens if the result is not normal?
If your test shows you have HPV, your health-care provider will monitor the infection and is likely to recommend further tests to better understand the changes to your cervical cells. Even when results show an HPV infection, it normally takes 10 or more years for it to develop into cervical cancer. Only about 1 in 20 pregnant women will have abnormal cervical cells after further investigation.
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Last reviewed: October 2020