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Understanding your Pap smear/ Cervical Screening Test results

The Pap smear test has now 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 have now come into effect as of 1 December 2017. These changes recognise the introduction of a vaccine against specific strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. The new screening program is designed to work together with the HPV vaccination program to help reduce the incidence 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 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 change 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.

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 should have a HPV test every five years. 

To learn more watch the video:


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 positive 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.

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

HPV is present in 99.7 per cent of 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.

What if I?ve had an abnormal Pap smear result before?

If a past Pap smear 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.

Where can I get reliable information?

Cancer Council 13 11 20
Information and support for you and your family for the cost of a local call anywhere in Australia.

Cancer Screening website 

National Cervical Screening Program 13 15 56

HPV vaccine



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This page was last updated on: Wednesday, September 25, 2019

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