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Understanding your Pap smear or cervical screening test results

What the screening test results mean for you

The Pap test (sometimes called the Pap smear) has changed to the cervical screening test. 

Cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates have halved in Australia since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991. This program offered a free Pap test every two years to women between the ages of 18 and 70.

A number of changes came into effect as of 1 December 2017. These changes recognise the introduction of a vaccine against specific strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually shows no symptoms and goes away by itself. Persistent HPV infection can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix. Over a long time, these abnormal cells may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

The new screening program is designed to work together with the HPV vaccination program to help reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. 

The new cervical screening test procedure is similar to a Pap smear test. For both tests a doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix. However, the Pap smear test used to look for abnormal cells in the cervix, while the cervical screening test looks for HPV infection. The new test for HPV can identify women who could be at risk of cervical cancer earlier than the Pap test could.

Women aged 25 to 74 years of age should have a cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test. Subsequently, you will only need to have the test every five years if your results are normal. 

The reason the age has changed from 18 to 25 for your first screening is that most women under the age of 25 will have been vaccinated for HPV. In addition, cervical cancer in women under 25 is rare.

Having a test for HPV every five years offers the best chance of preventing cervical cancer. It is a quick and simple test used to check for HPV infection.

New cervical program: info for women over 25 | Cancer Council Australia

Why have a cervical screening test?

The new cervical screening test is more accurate than the Pap smear test and the best test available for the prevention of most cases of cervical cancer. Australia is set to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue. That is why it is so important for all women between the ages of 25 and 74 to have a HPV test every five years. 

To learn more watch the video:

Eliminating Cervical Cancer - A Call to Action:UN HLM on NCDs | Cancer Council Australia

What about the vaccine for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer mostly occurs as a consequence of a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. There are more than 200 different types of HPV, but only a few types that affect the cervix.

Vaccines are now available that prevent the types of HPV infection that cause most cervical cancers but do not protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancers. All vaccinated and unvaccinated women still need to have a cervical screening test every five years.

What is an unsatisfactory cervical screening test?

An unsatisfactory cervical screening test means that the laboratory staff could not detect any cells to give a report.

In this case, you may be asked to have a repeat test. This is not a cause for alarm.

What does a negative cervical screening test result mean?

If your results show that HPV infection was not detected, you will be sent a reminder to have your next screening test in five years.

What does a positive cervical screening test result mean?

It is natural to feel anxious or worried if you have just found out that your HPV test is positive.

HPV is present in nearly all (99.7%) cervical cancer cases. However, not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer.

Most women don't know they have HPV until they receive positive HPV test result. For most women the virus clears naturally in one to two years. However, in some cases HPV may take longer to clear from the body, increasing the risk of developing cervical cancer.

If HPV is found, additional tests will automatically be done on the same sample of cells in the laboratory. Your doctor will let you know what will happen next. Depending on the results of all of the tests, you might have a repeat cervical screening test in 12 months, to see if the HPV infection has cleared, or might have a follow-up procedure called a colposcopy.

It's important to remember that HPV infections usually clear on their own. Also keep in mind that most abnormal cells are not cervical cancer, and can usually be treated quickly and painlessly.

If it is confirmed to be cervical cancer, here is some useful information to help you cope after a diagnosis of cervical cancer.

What if I’ve had an abnormal Pap test result before?

If a past Pap test picked up an abnormality, you will continue to have personalised care from your specialist or doctor. This might include regular appointments and tests for a period of time. 

Cancer Council recommends that women of any age who have symptoms (including pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge) should see their doctor immediately.

For more information

Other useful websites

National Cervical Screening

HPV vaccine

Routine cervical screening is your best protection against cervical cancer

Cancer Council's leading experts have come together to explain what this means for you