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Cervical screening (smear test)

  • Each year around five million women in the UK are invited for cervical screening (smear test)
  • Cervical screening saves 5,000 lives a year in the UK [1]
  • Cervical screening is free and you should receive your invitation to attend for regular screening from your GP surgery (it is important that you let them know of any change in your name or address)
  • If you are feeling anxious beforehand, you can ask a member of your family or friend to accompany you. Your practice nurse or GP will be happy to talk through any anxieties that you have prior to your cervical screening appointment
  • Cervical screening is NOT a test to find cancer. It is a screening test to detect changes to the cells of the cervix, which are called cervical abnormalities or precancer
  • Between 90 and 94% of all screening results come back normal, with no abnormalities found
  • It is important to remember that an abnormal screening result rarely means cancer
  • Having regular cervical screening offers the best protection against developing cervical cancer
  • Please take up your invitation to attend your cervical screening test; regular screening saves lives.

Cervical screening is the process of taking a sample of cells from your cervix and, currently, these cells are then examined under a microscope in order to detect changes in the cells (abnormalities) that might develop into cancer in the future. The sample of cells is placed in a liquid to help preserve the sample so that it can be analysed in the laboratory. This process is called liquid-based cytology (LBC). Screening can detect changes to the cells of the cervix, and the detection and successful treatment of these cells usually prevents cervical cancer from developing. In nearly all cases changes in these cells are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Testing for these ‘high-risk’ HPV types themselves can also be done on the same LBC sample taken during the cervical screening but, at the moment, this is not done routinely on all samples across the UK. Please visit our HPV testing page for more information about this.

In some areas of the UK, the governments have announced that they will be moving to a new system called HPV primary screening. In HPV primary screening the sample of cells collected during cervical screening will be being tested for high-risk HPV first, rather than looked at under a microscope to look for abnormalities directly. If the sample is positive for high-risk HPV, the cells will then be looked at under a microscope and the woman may go for further investigation at colposcopy. You can find out more about this change and where in the UK it is happening on our HPV primary screening pages.

Around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in UK each year [2]. Regular cervical screening provides a high degree of protection against developing cervical cancer and it is offered free on the NHS. It is estimated that early detection and treatment through cervical screening can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing in the UK [1]. Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer.


If you are a health care professional involved in smear taking, please visit our Information for Practice Nurses and GPs pages where you will find a wide range of content, best practice guidelines, relevant links for you and your patients, and resources and ways that we can support you. You can also sign up for our quarterly health care professional e-newsletter.

Take part in research

University College London need your experiences to help shape the NHS cervical screening programme. Find out more.


  1. Peto et al., 2004. The cervical cancer epidemic that screening has prevented in the UK. Lancet 35, 249–256.
  2. Cancer Research UK. Cervical cancer mortality statistics. www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/cervix/mortality. Accessed 04.09.2015.


Date last updated: 
16 Jan 2017
Date due for review: 
04 Sep 2018

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