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Cervical cancer symptoms

Cervical cancer symptoms include vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you, changes to vaginal discharge, discomfort during sex and pain in your lower back or pelvis. If you have symptoms, you should contact your GP.

On this page:

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms or the symptoms may not be obvious. The most common symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you, including after the menopause, after sex, or between regular periods
  • changes to vaginal discharge
  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • unexplained pain in your lower back or between your hip bones (pelvis).

It is important to remember that these symptoms usually happen for reasons other than cervical cancer. But it is also important to contact your GP straight away, so they can give you reassurance and support.

We have separate information about symptoms of advanced cervical cancer >

Vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you

If you have regular periods, unusual vaginal bleeding happens any time outside of your regular period. It may happen:

  • between periods
  • during or after sex
  • after the menopause.

Although this may be worrying, remember there are many different reasons for unusual bleeding that may not be related to cervical cancer. These include hormonal contraception (birth control) and cervical ectropionWhatever type of unusual vaginal bleeding you have, it is important to contact your GP. They can examine you and make sure everything is okay. 

Go to the Eve Appeal website for tips on tracking vaginal bleeding >

Vaginal bleeding after the menopause (post-menopausal bleeding)

If you are over 45 and haven’t had a period for more than a year, you may have gone through the menopause. After the menopause, any bleeding from the vagina needs to be checked by your GP, even if it is light or just happens once. 

Read more about post-menopausal bleeding on the NHS website >

Changes to vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is a fluid (mucus) that cleans and protects the vagina. Most women have it, but it is good to be aware of any changes. Those changes may be:

  • looking different – for example, becoming much thicker or changing colour
  • smelling different – particularly if it smells unpleasant. 

Vagina discharge can change for lots of reasons that aren’t related to cervical cancer, such as an infection or changing hormones. 

It is important to tell your GP about any changes so they can put your mind at ease and make sure you get the care you need. 

Pain or discomfort during sex

You may find sex painful or uncomfortable. This is sometimes called dyspareunia.

Sex may be painful for lots of reasons, both physical and psychological, that aren’t related to cervical cancer. There are things that may help, such as using more lubrication or seeing a counsellor that specialises in sex therapy. But to reassure you and so sex can become more comfortable, it is important to contact your GP and tell them about the pain. 

Unexplained pain in your lower back or between your hipbones

Sometimes we feel pain in our lower back or between our hipbones (pelvis) for a reason, like pulling a muscle or having a period. But it is a good idea to tell your GP about this pain if:

  • there is no obvious reason for it
  • it is affecting your day-to-day life
  • it lasts for 2 to 3 weeks or longer.

What to do if you have symptoms of cervical cancer 

All of the symptoms we talk about on this page often happen for a reason other than cervical cancer. But if you have any of these symptoms or are worried about anything else, it is best to contact your GP as soon as possible. 

We know it can be worrying when you notice unusual symptoms and you may feel especially concerned at the moment. If you have symptoms, you should ring your GP surgery and ask for an appointment. Your GP may want to assess you over the phone to help decide the next steps:

  • Medical history. Your GP should ask about your medical history to try and understand what may be causing the symptoms. They may also ask about your last cervical screening result.
  • Sexual history. Your GP may ask about the possibility of you having a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which may be causing the symptoms. They may also ask if you are taking any contraception. 
  • Pregnancy. Your GP may ask about the possibility of you being pregnant and ask you to take a pregnancy test.

Once they know more about your individual situation, they will decide on the next steps. This may be seeing you at a face-to-face appointment to do a further examination. 

Your GP may decide that you do not need an urgent face-to-face appointment. You can ask them why they think it is safe for you to wait, as their answer might reassure you. It is important to remember that cervical cancer is rare, so the likelihood that your symptoms are caused by cervical cancer is low.

Read about virtual appointments >

You should not only be offered cervical screening (a smear test) if you have symptoms. Cervical screening is a preventative test, not one to diagnose a condition. 

If you have symptoms, you should be offered a pelvic examination. It checks your reproductive organs (see picture below) for anything that may be causing your symptoms. A pelvic examination is done by a trained GP or practice nurse – you can ask for a female. They will wear new, clean gloves for the examination. The examination lasts for a few minutes. 

A pelvic examination involves the GP or nurse:

  • pressing on your stomach to feel for anything unusual 
  • looking at the outside of your vagina for any changes, such as redness or swelling
  • feeling the inside of your vagina to check whether your womb or ovaries are tender or swollen 
  • looking at your cervix for any changes by using a speculum to gently open your vagina – they may also take a sample of cells from your cervix. 

Your GP or nurse should explain each step before they do it, to make sure you are comfortable and consent to the examination. If you are uncomfortable or want to stop at any time, tell them.  

The female reproductive system

An illustration of the female reproductive system, showing the area between the hipbones, ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb, cervix and vagina. 

Your GP may also ask you to take a pregnancy or STI test. This is to rule out other conditions that may be causing any symptoms. If you are pregnant or have an STI, your GP can make sure you get the right care and support.  

After your pelvic examination, your GP may refer you to colposcopy or a specialist doctor called a gynaecologist. This means you will invited to the hospital for further tests, to help find out why you have symptoms.

Read more about colposcopy >

How we can help

If you have any symptoms, it is important to speak with your GP. They will be able to give you medical advice based on your situation and history. 

Remember, we are here to support you and our services are open if you want to talk through anything or simply have someone listen to your concerns on 0808 802 8000

Check our Helpline opening hours >

We also have a welcoming community in our online Forum, where you can get and give support. There are a few conversations about symptoms, so you can choose to read existing threads or post your own messages. 

Join our Forum >

If you have general questions about symptoms or cervical cancer, our Ask the Expert service may be able to help. Submit your question confidentially to our panel of experts and get a tailored reply. 

Use our Ask the Expert service >

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it. 

References

  • European Society for Medical Oncology (2017). Cervical cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines. Annals of Oncology.
  • Royal College of Nursing (2016). Genital examination in women: A resource for skills development and assessment. 
  • NICE (2018). Heavy menstrual bleeding: assessment and management. Updated 2020. Accessed April 2020.
  • Low, E. L et al (2013). Experience of symptoms indicative of gynaecological cancers in UK women. BJC.
  • NHS (2010). Clinical Practice Guidance for the Assessment of Young Women aged 20-24 with Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding. Web: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/436924/doh-guidelines-young-women.pdf. Accessed April 2020.

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

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Date last updated: 
15 Jan 2021
Date due for review: 
31 Oct 2023
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