Cervical screening (smear test)

Each year around five million women in the UK are invited for cervical screening (smear test). 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.

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, which 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. Changes in these cells are generally caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Testing for the HPV virus itself 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. More information on HPV testing can be found here.

Around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in UK each year [1]. 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 [2]. Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer.


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


Date last updated: 
04 Sep 2015
Date due for review: 
04 Sep 2017

Have a question? Need to talk?

Our helpline is currently closed, find out when it’s next open.

Or submit your question via our Ask the Expert online service

Help us by rating the information on this page

Do you feel more informed after reading this information?
After reading this information I feel better able to make choices about my health (1 = Strongly disagree > 5 = Strongly agree)
Rate this page
You voted: . Total votes: 1. Average rating: 5