Why people are calling to ditch the term 'smear test'

Francesca Specter
Yahoo Style UK deputy editor
Public Health England believe the term “smear test” is putting people off. [Photo: Getty]

Getting a smear test could be one of the most important things you ever do.

The screenings are designed to check the health of your cervix, in order to screen for abnormal cells which could turn into cervical cancer if not treated.

Women with a cervix aged between 25 and 64 are invited by the NHS to attend a smear test every three to five years, based on their age. Yet, last year it was revealed just 71% of women are attending regular screenings as recommended – which represents a 20 year low.

In a bid to counteract this, a campaign by Public Health England (PHE) will refer to the test as a “cervical screening” rather than the traditional “smear test”.

It is about “breaking down barriers,” the PHE’s director of screening Anne Mackie told the BBC. She believes the new term will “normalise” the procedure.

“The campaign shows how cervical screening is a vital preventative test which can identify potentially harmful cells and treat them before they have a chance to develop into cancer, giving us the opportunity to stop cancer before it starts,” she adds.

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It will also emphasise the importance of cervical screenings, through depicting a woman who is being encouraged by friends and family to go for hers.

The “Cervical Screening Saves Lives” campaign, created by advertising company M&C Saatchi, will be launched via a series of adverts running on television, radio and online over the next eight weeks.

Is the term “smear test” outdated?

Kate Sanger, a representative for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, told Yahoo UK the “smear test” is no longer an accurate reflection of the way smear tests are conducted,

“The term ‘smear test’ comes from the old process of processing samples, which involved literally smearing cells onto a glass plate to be looked at under a microscope. This is no longer the way that samples are processed. This means that ‘cervical screening’ is a better description of what happens in the test.”

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However, the charity still continue to use both terms in order to make sure people know what is being referred to. 

“We know some women don’t like the term however many others still do talk about ‘smear tests’. Messaging should be accessible and easy to understand, so that as many people as possible benefit from it. For this reason, we’ll continue to use both terms.”

“For many people, a screening appointment will be quick (the actual test takes no longer than a minute), painless (although a little discomfort is normal) and straight-forward.

However, there are many reasons that people don’t go, such as fear, embarrassment, fear of pain and difficulties in getting appointments. For some people, a physical disability or being a survivor of sexual violence means that attending screening is almost impossible.

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“Going to a screening appointment is not easy for everybody, but it’s incredibly important to go if you can. Cervical screening prevents 75% of cervical cancers from ever developing as it detects abnormal cells which can then be removed.

You can contact Jo’s Trust on their free, confidential helpline on 0808 802 8000, or visit the Jo’s Trust website for more details on what to expect from your cervical screening.