We hear about getting our first Cervical Screening Test at 25 a lot, and now we can just do the test ourselves! But what does the test actually look for? And what does it mean if you have an ‘positive’ result?
The CST – which is now a swab you can self-collect from inside the vagina – tests for the presence of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). After your sample gets sent to the laboratory, there may be a chance that it returns an ‘positive’ result.
Let’s break down what this can mean.
HPV is a highly contagious viral infection with over 200 types. Most people who have ever been sexually active will have HPV at some point in their lives, meaning almost everyone can and will have had HPV – no matter if you have a vagina or penis.
Most of the time the infection is invisible, harmless and goes away without causing any issues. However, some types of HPV can cause a variety of cancers and warts.
Cervical cancer is a rare outcome of an HPV infection. It takes about 10 to 15 years for cervical cancer to develop after an HPV infection. 95% of cervical cancers are associated with HPV infection.
If your swab comes back “negative” - meaning it does not find any HPV - you won’t need to test again for another 5 years.
A “positive” result means that you have a HPV infection. This does not mean you have developed cervical cancer.
There are a few things that can happen next:
A colposcopy looks closer at the cervix and helps to determine the nature of abnormal cervical cells.
Like how a CST is performed, you will also need a speculum inserted into your vagina so they can see your cervix clearly. Then, they will use a magnifying glass called a colposcope, which looks like a pair of binoculars mounted on a stand. This does not touch the body.
During the colposcopy the doctor will apply different solutions to the cervix to see which areas need to be test, and if there are any changes to the cervix.
If there are any areas they think need further testing, they may take a small biopsy of some of the cervical cells. This is like a pinch, but should not cause significant pain. These tissues will then be sent off for testing. Afterwards, you may feel some cramping but it is safe to continue with your day.
Persistent HPV infections can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix.
Your colposcopy results will give you more information about any abnormal cells in your cervix.
Abnormalities just mean the cells of the cervix appear different - this does NOT automatically mean you have cancer. Abnormalities can usually be treated easily and successfully, if detected early. If left untreated, there is a greater chance of developing cervical cancer.
Cervical abnormalities are given different grades of severity:
This means that the cells of the cervix are slightly changed, and can confirm infection with HPV. Often your body is given time to clear the infection – as most HPV infections are cleared by the body within 1-2 years. You may need re-screening at 12 months, but are unlikely to need any treatment to the cervix.
This means that the cells of the cervix have gone through greater changes. This is due to an HPV infection that has not been cleared by your immune system. These changes will be followed up by the public hospital or private gynaecologist for further testing and possible treatment to the cervix.
Finally, if you develop any bleeding after sex or between your periods, develop pelvic pain or deep pelvic pain during sex or if you notice any other symptoms you’re worried about see your doctor. While most infections with HPV are symptomless and while most cervical cancers are caused by HPV there are other rare types of cervical cancer that cannot be detected with a CST. Act on these symptoms and see your doctor or nurse.
For more information on what is involved in the initial CST, read our blog post here!