Cervical Screening Test frequently asked questions

Cervix Screening Registry

What is the Cervical Screening Test?

A Cervical Screening Test is a quick and simple procedure to check the health of your cervix. The test will look for human papillomavirus (HPV). A number of cells are taken from your cervix and sent to a laboratory for testing. The way the test is done will look and feel the same as when you had a Pap smear. Your cervix is the opening of the uterus ('neck of the womb') and is at the top of your vagina (see the diagram below). For more information visit What is the Cervical Screening Test?

A graphical representation of the female reproductive system

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Why should I have a Cervical Screening Test?

The Cervical Screening Test is more accurate than a Pap smear at detecting early stage HPV. HPV is a common virus that can cause changes to cells in your cervix, which in rare cases can develop into cervical cancer. By detecting a HPV infection early, it allows your healthcare provider to monitor the infection and intervene if required. This is why every woman aged 25 to 74 who has ever been sexually active, should have regular Cervical Screening Tests.

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What is the difference between a Pap smear and Cervical Screening Test?

The Cervical Screening Test will look and feel the same as the Pap smear. However, the Pap smear only looked for cell changes in the cervix, whereas the Cervical Screening Test looks for the HPV which can lead to cell changes in the cervix.

The Cervical Screening Test is better at preventing cervical cancer because it looks for HPV before the infection starts to change the cells. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. This means that the new test is safe to have every five years because of the time it takes for HPV to cause harmful changes to your cervical cells.

The latest medical and scientific evidence shows that having a Cervical Screening Test every five years is just as safe, and is more effective at preventing cervical cancer than having a Pap smear every two years. For more information, visit the How is the test more accurate?.

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What happens during a Cervical Screening Test?

A Cervical Screening Test is a simple test to check the health of your cervix. It only takes a few minutes to carry out. For you, if you have ever had a Pap smear before, the way the test is done will look and feel the same.

  1. A health care provider will take you to a private room where you will be asked to remove your underwear and to lie on your back on an examination bed.
  2. You will be given a sheet to cover yourself from the waist down, and if this has not been provided, you can ask for one.
  3. A speculum (an instrument which may be made of stainless steel or hard plastic) is gently placed in the entrance to the vagina so that the cervix can be seen.
  4. A small brush is used to rub some cells from the cervix.
  5. It should not hurt but it might feel uncomfortable. You can ask to have a pillow under you to help put your cervix in the right position. If it hurts, tell your health care provider immediately.
  6. The cells are sent to a laboratory for testing.

Remember, if you are nervous, you can take a support person (such as your worker, friend or family member) with you. You can also request a female healthcare provider to do the test. If a female is not available at your current health centre, you may wish to contact another clinic.

For more information, visit How is a Cervical Screening Test done?.

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How do the changes to cervical screening affect me?

The way the sample is collected will stay the same.

  • Your first Cervical Screening Test is due two years after your last Pap smear. If this test shows you do not have HPV, then your next test will be due in five years.
  • You will receive a reminder for a Cervical Screening Test, three months before you are due to go for the test.
  • You will start cervical screening at age 25 or when you are first sexually active if you are aged over 25. If you are under 25 and have already had a Pap smear, you will not be due to be recalled for cervix screening until you are 25 unless you previously received a positive test result. If you have abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain or discharge you should discuss this with your health professional immediately.
  • Women aged 70 to 74 years will be invited to have an exit test to check that everything is ok, before you stop having regular screening tests.
  • HPV vaccinated women still require cervical screening as the HPV vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.

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The Cervical Screening Test is only offered every five years, why the change?

New evidence about cervical screening has found that screening for HPV every five years is more effective than, and just as safe as, screening with a Pap smear every two years. Because of this more effective test, women will only need to screen every five years, regardless of whether or not they have had the HPV vaccination.

The new Cervical Screening Test detects HPV, which is the first step in developing cervical cancer. Persistent HPV can cause abnormal cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. However, this usually takes a long time, often more than 10 years. While the Pap smear could detect abnormal cell changes, the Cervical Screening Test detects the persistent HPV that causes the abnormal cell changes that if left untreated, may eventually lead to the development of cervical cancer.

Screening every five years can detect persistent infections which may be of concern and avoids detecting infections that are likely to go away on their own within one to two years.

For more information, visit Why has screening changed from 2 to 5 years?.

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Why has the age changed from 18 to 25 years for the first screening test?

Research shows that beginning cervical screening at age 25 years is safe. For more information, visit Why has the age changed from 18 to 25 years for the first screening test?.

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Who needs a Cervical Screening Test?

If you are a woman aged between 25 and 74 years of age and have ever been sexually active, you should have a Cervical Screening test every five years until the age of 74. You still need to have cervical screening even if you:

  • are well and have no symptoms
  • have received the HPV vaccine
  • have only had one sexual partner
  • identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender(and still have a cervix), and/or Intersex (LGBTI)
  • no longer have periods/are past menopause or going through menopause
  • are no longer sexually active
  • have had a hysterectomy (your doctor will advise if you no longer require the Cervical Screening Test).

If you have symptoms such as unusual bleeding, discharge and pain you should see your health care professional immediately. For more information, visit Who should have the test?.

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Where do I go for a Cervical Screening Test?

Cervical Screening Tests are available at a number of locations throughout the state. Find out more about where to get a Cervical Screening Test.

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If I have a disability, do I still need a Cervical Screening Test?

Yes. All women who have ever been sexually active need to have Cervical Screening Tests every five years between the ages of 25 and 74.

Some women with disabilities may face barriers which make having a Cervical Screening Test harder to do. These barriers may include clinic accessibility, physical limitations, competing health needs and lack of clarity regarding informed consent.

If you have a physical disability and require special assistance in having a Cervical Screening Test, there are places with adjustable beds. Please contact your local health service provider to discuss if they can meet your needs and/or help overcome some of the barriers unique to you.

Some women who choose not to or unable to have a doctor or nurse collect the Cervical Screening Test, may be eligible to take the sample themselves. This is called a self-collected Cervical Screening Test. Speak to your doctor or health professional to find out if you are eligible.

Find out more about where to get a Cervical Screening Test or find more information on the Family Planning NSW Just Checking website.

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How can women from multicultural communities get information on cervical screening?

Screening for multicultural communities

In recognition that multicultural participants have lower cancer screening participation, higher risk of cancer detection and lower rates of follow-up of positive screening tests, the Multicultural Project Officer works specifically with multicultural communities across SA to promote Cancer Screening Checks.

The Multicultural Project Officer works with women to promote cervical and bowel screening, and with multicultural men to promote bowel screening. Preventative healthcare is not available worldwide, and people from multicultural communities may be fearful or uncertain about cancer screening, and may require additional support to access these lifesaving tests.

Resources for multicultural communities

Information and resources developed with multicultural women to promote screening can be found via the healthy living resources page and/or via the National Cervical Screening Program website. 

For any enquiries and available resources please contact the Screening Program and/or Multicultural Project Officer on the following email: WellbeingSACANCERSCREENING@sa.gov.au

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Do I have to pay for a Cervical Screening Test?

There is a Medicare rebate for the Cervical Screening Test. When you make an appointment for a Cervical Screening Test, ask your health care provider if you will be required to pay for a doctor’s consultation fee or if there will be any additional costs. There are some clinics that will bulk bill and this means that you will not have to pay a consultation fee.

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What about the results?

Your healthcare provider will contact you directly to discuss the results, next steps and any further testing and/or treatment that you may need. Results are normally available within a few weeks from when you had the test.

An abnormal result doesn't usually mean you have cancer. For more information about abnormal Cervical Screening Test results, see Cervical Screening Test results – what do they mean page.

Information about the different test results you receive can also be found on the Cervical Screening Test results – what do they mean page.

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When am I due for my next Cervical Screening Test?

Your first Cervical Screening Test is due two years after your last Pap smear. If your results are normal, you will then have the test every five years after that. You will be sent a reminder letter letting you know when your Cervical Screening Test is due. If you are under 25, you will be sent an invitation when you are due to start screening. If you can’t remember when you had your last Cervical Screening Test, would like to know when you are due for your next one or need to update or remove your details, you can contact the National Cancer Screening Registry (NCSR) on 1800 627 701.

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When should I stop cervical screening?

Women between 70 and 74 years of age who have had a regular Cervical Screening Test will be recommended to have an exit HPV test before leaving the National Cervical Screening Program.

Women older than 69 years of age who have never been screened or not had regular screening tests should have Cervical Screening Test if they request screening .

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What causes cervical cancer?

Changes to the cells of the cervix that can lead to cancer are caused by long-term infection of HPV. HPV is a common outcome of being sexually active, with 4 out of 5 people having HPV at some stage in their life.

Usually, your body will clear HPV naturally in one to two years, however in a small number of cases, it can stay longer and lead to cervical cancer.

For more information about the link between HPV and cervical cancer, visit the About HPV and cervical cancer web page.

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Will cervical screening prevent all cervical cancers?

No. There is no effective population based screening test for rare neuroendocrine cervical cancers. Given the current state of scientific evidence, neither the Pap smear nor the Cervical Screening Test can effectively detect rare neuroendocrine cervical cancers. However, the majority of cell changes will be detected in a Cervical Screening Test.

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Is the test still necessary if I have received the HPV vaccine?

Yes. The HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against HPV but it does not protect against all types of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. Even if you have been immunised you still need to have regular screening.

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Can I do a self-collection/self-screening test?

Self-collection for HPV testing is only offered for women who:

  • have never had a cervical screening test and are 30 years or over or
  • are overdue for cervical screening by two years or longer and are 30 years of age or over, and
  • decline the standard Cervix Screening Test.

Unlike bowel screening which can be done at home, women will need to do the cervical self-sampling in a clinical setting, such as a doctor’s surgery or family planning clinic. If you are eligible, and choose this option, you will be given instructions on how to do the test and allowed to conduct the test in private. The self-sampling process is a bit like inserting a large cotton bud into your vagina.

If the self-collected sample tests positive for HPV, the woman will need to return to her doctor or nurse for further testing or referral to a specialist.

For more info about self-screening see How to take your own HPV test.

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Where can I find more information?

There is a frequently asked questions list about cervical screening on the National Cervical Screening Program website or speak to a Cervical Screening Test Provider.

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Cervical Screening Registry

What is the National Cancer Screening Register?

The National Cancer Screening Registry (NCSR) is a central database that records, analyses and reports on cancer screening data for the National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP).

Please phone the NCSR on 1800 627 601 and they will be able to assist you with your record update or information request.

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What information is stored on the Cervical Screening Registry?

The following information is stored on the National Cervical Screening Register (NCSR):

  • the date of your last Cervical Screening Test
  • your Cervical Screening Test results
  • your name
  • date of birth
  • address
  • Medicare number
  • your doctor’s name and address

Results of further investigations such as colposcopies and biopsies will also be recorded as these results affect how often you will need Cervical Screening Tests in the future.

All information recorded on the Register is confidential. See the NCSR Privacy Policy for more information on how we ensure your information is confidential.

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How do my results go on the Register?

When you have a Cervical Screening Test, the results are sent from the laboratory to the National Cancer Screening Register (NCSR).If you don’t want your name and address recorded on the Register, please contact the NCSR on 1800 627 601 or visit manage your screening participation.

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Can I choose to 'opt off' the Register?

If you do not want your results recorded on the Register, you can request to cease correspondence or alternatively you can opt off the Register. Opting off the Register involves the deletion of all your information and details from the Register’s information system.

Once you have been deleted you can no longer be located on the Register, you will no longer receive reminders when you’re overdue for a Cervical Screening Test, and the Register is unable to act as a safety net for the follow-up of any abnormal tests. For more information, please visit information about opting out of the Register

Alternatively, you can remain on the Register.

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How can I update my contact details on the Register?

If you have moved address and would like to make sure you continue to receive reminder letters, you can contact the National Cervical Screening Register (NCSR) on 1800 627 701 or visit manage your participation.

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How is my privacy protected?

Only you, your doctor and the laboratory have access to your details held on the Register. The details of any cases of cervical cancer are also forwarded to the SA Cancer Register. This information is protected under the South Australian Public Health Act 2011 and the South Australian Information Privacy Principles Instruction (PDF 230KB) (Premier and Cabinet Circular No 12).

Information is also used for research to improve knowledge about preventing cervical cancer. No research information identifies an individual person.

The Australian Government Department of Health (Health) is the custodian of the information in the Register. The Privacy Policy describes why, when, and how they collect, use and disclose your information to operate the Register.

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What are the benefits of being on the Registers?

Being on the register means:

  • Reminder letters are sent when you are overdue for a Cervical Screening Test. The timing will depend on the result of your last test.
  • The Register follows up abnormal results so they are not overlooked.
  • The laboratory and your doctor can understand your Cervical Screening Test result better.

You can also:

  • review and update your personal information
  • check when you had your previous screening test and when your next screening is due
  • manage your participation (for example, if you want to nominate a healthcare provider or change your next scheduled screening test).

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