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Let’s talk about… smear tests for under-25s

Posted on: Monday, 28th January 2019 by Imogen Pinnell, Health Information Manager

Today in parliament, MPs debate the age at which the cervical screening (a smear test) programme begins. The debate is taking place because of a petition which was created by Natasha Sale and gathered over 160,000 signatures. Natasha Sale was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 28 and very sadly passed away at the age of 31. 

Natasha’s story is incredibly sad. We are thinking of her family and friends who have had to go through this.

Her petition asks the government to lower the age at which the NHS offers smear tests to 18, rather than the current age of 25. We have had lots of calls to our helpline and questions from people who are under 25 who want to know more about this – it’s totally normal to feel a bit scared or unsure about the screening age. We thought it might be helpful to explain the reasons why the NHS guidelines for cervical screening are the way they are. 

Why are smear tests offered from the age of 25?

Firstly (and luckily), cervical cancer diagnoses in under-25s are extremely rare. Every year, only about 4 out of every 100,000 people diagnosed with cervical cancer are under the age of 25 – that’s less than 1% - with 0 deaths on average among that age group. The roll-out and the high uptake of the HPV vaccine means that lots of young women are now protected against high-risk HPV types that cause 70% of cervical cancers, which has helped the number of diagnoses to fall and will mean cervical cancer becomes even more rare.

However, it’s not just about the incidence. Research suggests that lowering the screening age could do more harm than good. When you are under 25, it is really common to have changes (abnormalities) in the cells of your cervix. In almost all cases, these changes will revert back to normal on their own and will not need treatment. 

If these cell changes were found, the unnecessary treatment could very well have a harmful psychological impact, especially at a young age. Treatments for high-grade cervical abnormalities usually involves removing part of your cervix and, like all treatments, have risks – for example, some treatments may affect your ability to carry a child to full term in later life. If we can avoid having treatment, this is a positive thing. 

Although cervical cancer is rare in under-25s, we know some are affected, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer. Symptoms such as bleeding that is unusual for you, unusual discharge and pain between the hipbones (pelvic pain) can be symptoms of many other conditions, but if you are experiencing any of them, you should speak to your GP. There are measures in place for under-25s who are experiencing abnormal bleeding. This is why it’s really important to know your own body well and know what’s normal for you, so that you can detect changes that you should be aware of. 

Support for you

You can find out more on our information pages or if you have concerns or questions, no matter how big or small, you can call our helpline to talk through whatever’s on your mind. 

Categories: cervical screening