Cervical Screening

Normal and inadequate test results

Women who receive a normal screening test result, which means that cells in the cervix are normal (19 out of every 20 women screened – NHS Choices 2015), are asked to return for another cervical screening test in 3-5 years, depending on their age.

Occasionally women can receive an inadequate test result. An inadequate test result means that the test must be done again because the laboratory was not able to see the cells properly to give a result. The number of inadequate test results has reduced since liquid based cytology (a way of preparing cervical samples for examination in the laboratory) has been introduced. In England in 2012-13, 2.3 per cent of tests were inadequate and had to be taken again (Cervical Screening Programme, England – 2012-13: Report) most of these are due to; not enough cervical cells being taken to give an accurate assessment, or there may have been an infection (such as thrush) or mucous or blood which may be covering the sample taken from the cervix. 

We talked to women about how they felt about getting an inadequate test result. Some women said the repeat test was an inconvenience rather than a worry, which they wanted to get over with, especially if they found the test difficult or embarrassing. Others were anxious because they were given insufficient information about why they were asked to have a repeat test and they thought that something was wrong with their cervix. A few felt reassured that their experience was not unusual, once they had spoken to family or friends who had also been asked to have a repeat test.

Women who have an inadequate test result are normally asked to have a repeat test three months later as this allows the lining (epithelium) of the cervix to regenerate so there are enough cells to test.

Before Liquid Based Cytology was introduced, some older, postmenopausal women had received several inadequate results. One woman needed to have three tests before sufficient cells were taken for the test. Another had difficulty getting cells taken during her tests following her treatment for abnormal cervical cells. However these women considered it important to put up with any discomfort and have these re-tests for reassurance that their cervix was healthy.

Last reviewed October 2015.

Last updated October 2015.

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