Nobody enjoys going to the gynaecologist, but it’s important to attend your cervical screening once you’ve turned 25 to protect yourself against cervical cancer. From 25 to 49 years old, you must go for a smear test every three years, and then between the ages of 50 and 64, you’ll only need to go over five years. After that, you only need to get a smear test if your last three tests were abnormal. The more you get tested, the less embarrassed you’ll feel about a doctor inspecting your intimate area. To make things more comfortable, Express.co.uk chatted to the founder of the Lunette menstrual cup, Heli Kurjanen, to find out her top tips for preparing for a smear test (and whether or not you can request a female doctor).
When you turn 25, you will receive a letter from your doctor inviting you to your first cervical screening.
You’ll get the letter in the six months leading up to your 25th birthday, but you should always schedule an earlier exam if you’re experiencing any gynaecological symptoms prior to the letter’s arrival.
Heli explained: “Such symptoms include irregularities in the menstrual cycle, unusual or severe vaginal or pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, swelling, tenderness, sores, lumps, or itching, or unusual changes in the breast.”
What happens during a smear test?
The process of cervical screening is quite straightforward and your doctor or nurse will explain what’s going to happen and answer any questions you have before the test starts.
The doctor might also ask about your general health and specifically any genital pain or problems.
They will also likely ask about menstruation, sexual activity and birth control.
You may also be asked questions about your family history, STD prevention, pregnancies, illnesses, surgeries, and drug and alcohol use.
Heli said: “Don’t feel embarrassed by any of these questions, as lying at this point can risk you not getting the best possible medical advice.
“You can have complete confidence that everything you say is kept confidential, and you are not being judged.”
The test takes less than five minutes and you should be in and out of the room within 10 minutes.
You will be asked to remove your underwear and lie on your back on the exam table before the test begins.
The doctor will then insert a speculum to keep the vagina open enough so that a swab can be inserted to scrape a small sample of cells from the cervix.
Sometimes doctors also conduct a pelvic exam during your screening.
Heli noted: “This is usually the most uncomfortable part for patients.
“A doctor uses a speculum to examine the vagina and cervix and then places fingers of one hand inside the vagina and presses on the abdomen with the other hand.
“It’s used to assess whether the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and cervix are a healthy size and position and an attempt to detect ovarian or other cancers.”
You may also have a breast exam which is brief and painless.
Heli explained: “The doctor will manually palpate your breast, feeling for lumps, thickening, or discharge.
“They will also teach you how to give yourself a personal breast exam.”
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How to prepare for a smear test
You don’t need to do anything to prepare for your smear test, but you should book your appointment for a date when you are not on your period because blood can impact your results.
Other than that, all you need to do to prepare is have a regular shower, and avoid using any powders or creams in the genital area.
Heli said: “While it’s completely understandable to want to arrive at your appointment clean and fresh, be assured that there is no need to clean yourself any more thoroughly than you normally would.
“In fact, too much cleaning (for example, douching) can have a negative impact on your hormonal balance and could potentially impact your exam.
“If you are getting a cervical exam, excessive washing can remove the cells that need to be examined.
“Also, any discharge that you have can help your doctor to understand your hormonal balance, so scrubbing this away means that they could miss important information, such as a shift in flora, a bacterial imbalance, or a yeast problem.”
There is no need for hair removal unless you normally remove your hair down there.
Heli explained: “Your gynaecologist is only checking to make sure you’re healthy, they are never judging you for having hair down there.
“Waxing and shaving can cause swelling or inflammation that may make a pelvic exam more challenging.”
Your choice of clothes could make the appointment more awkward or easier, depending on how easy your clothes are to take on and off.
Heli advised: “Wear clothes that are comfortable and easy to remove – jeans, leggings, and tights all make for very awkward undressing and redressing so try to stick to dresses or loose-fitting trousers and skirts.
“There is also a chance that you will need a breast examination, so a separate top and bottoms will help with this.
“A button-down shirt will also make this experience a little more comfortable.”
Can I request a female doctor?
Many women feel nervous about seeing their gynaecologist, and it’s completely understandable to prefer to have a female doctor performing your exam.
Smear tests are normally done by a female nurse or doctor, but not always.
So what do you do if you REALLY don’t want to see a male doctor?
Heli said: “Doctors certainly do not take offence to patients requesting a doctor of the same sex, and some clinics may even ask you for your preference when booking your appointment.
“You will never be asked to justify this request, and will be treated with complete confidentiality and professionalism.”
However, not all hospitals and clinics will be able to provide a female doctor if it is short notice.
In this case, if you feel uncomfortable then you are welcome to have a female family member or friend accompany you, and you can always request an additional nurse chaperone, Heli explained.
She added: “If you requested a female doctor, and for some reason, it is a male doctor who greets you at your appointment, it’s important that you remind the doctor and staff of your request.
“Staff will still not question this request, but will instead act professionally and look to rectify the mistake.”