Getting a smear test isn't exactly a fun way to spend a morning off work, but a cervical smear is an important part of our health care and not something to be ignored or put off (the same goes for these vital health checks). Around 3,000 cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK each year, but a smear test isn't actually a cancer test. What it does is warn your doctors of abnormal changes in the cells of your cervix. While most of those cell abnormalities don't actually lead to cancer, in some cases they do need to be removed so they don't change any further. Those early warning signs can prevent cervical cancer.
But how do you know when you're due for a smear test? It's recommended that women aged 25 to 49 get one every three years, and you'll be reminded you're due for an appointment via a letter from your GP. Trans men who still have a cervix and are registered with the GP as female will also be invited for a screening. Those registered with the GP as male will not receive an automatic appointment invitation but will still be eligible for screenings. These can be requested via your GP.
Yet with all this information, there's one question that's often asked by patients: can you have a smear test on your period? And if not, when is the best time? The NHS recommends that the test be taken "during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually 14 days from the start of your last period)". If your periods are irregular, this can make booking an appointment really tricky – especially when you factor in taking time off work. So why, exactly, can't you have a smear test while you're on your period?
There is a good reason as to why you shouldn't be on your period when you have your smear test, explains Better2Know's Dr Shamim Byrne, a gynaecologist with 25 years' experience in women's sexual health: "The reason pap smears are best done when a woman is not on her period is that clinical studies have shown that excessive amounts of blood may compromise the test and possibly lead to an unsatisfactory result. Sometimes it is possible to take a good sample if your period is light, but please contact your doctor and ask them. It is also important to avoid having sex, using any vaginal creams, foams, or jellies and douching for two days before attending for your test. This is because these materials and products can interfere with the microscopic examination of the cervical cells and lead to a false negative test result."
The last thing you want is to go through the whole process of the smear test only to find that the result is inconclusive, so it's best to book outside of your period where possible; however, your GP can advise if you have irregular periods. Smear tests are often much quicker and less uncomfortable than we imagine they will be, but that doesn't make them any less daunting. Talk to your GP and let them know if you're nervous, and if you ask specifically for a female doctor or nurse to carry out the procedure, they'll provide one. The tests are much easier if the patient is relaxed, so they'll do what they can to put you at ease.