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Cervical screening (a smear test) is a free health test that helps prevent cervical cancer. It checks for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cell changes (abnormal cells).
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Cervical screening is a free health test available on the NHS as part of the national cervical screening programme. It helps prevent cervical cancer by checking for a virus called high-risk HPV and cervical cell changes. It is not a test for cancer.
You might hear cervical screening being called a smear test. This is just a different name for the same test.
It is your choice whether to go for cervical screening. We hope this information helps you make the best decision for you and your health.
You can have cervical screening if you have a cervix. This includes trans and non-binary people with a cervix.
In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are:
You are invited:
You may get your first invite up to 6 months before you turn 25. You can book an appointment as soon as you get the invite.
It is very rare to develop cervical cancer:
It is usually recommended that you do not have cervical screening while you are or could be pregnant. Pregnancy can make the result of your test harder to interpret.
If you are invited for cervical screening while pregnant, tell your doctor or nurse you are pregnant. You should wait until 3 months after your baby is born to have the test.
If you need follow-up after an abnormal cervical screening result or treatment for cell changes, you may need to have the test while pregnant. Your GP or midwife may ask you to have it at your first antenatal appointment. This test will not affect your pregnancy.
Check with your doctor or nurse whether you are up to date with your cervical screening. This means that any tests or treatment can be arranged around the pregnancy.
If you have previously had treatment that affected your cervix for any reason, you may no longer be invited for cervical screening. These treatments include:
HIV can make your immune system very weak, meaning it is not as able to get rid of HPV that causes most cervical cancers. If you have HIV, speak with your healthcare team about going for cervical screening every year. Annual cervical screenings are usually taken outside of the NHS National Screening Programme.
As with any test, there are benefits and risks of cervical screening. You are invited for cervical screening because evidence shows that the benefits of the test outweigh any risks.
It is hard to know exactly how many people are affected by these risks. But we do know, for those aged 25 to 64, the benefits of cervical screening in preventing cervical cancer are great.
If you decide not have cervical screening, ask your GP to be removed from their invite list. If you change your mind, you can ask your GP to add you back to the list.
There is no difference between cervical screening and a smear test. They are two different names for the same test.
A smear test is the older name for the test. It was called that because of the way the test used to be done – cells were smeared on a glass slide, which was sent to the laboratory for testing.
The test is different now and most healthcare professionals call it cervical screening. Your letter will invite you to attend cervical screening, which is why we call it that in our information.
In the UK, about 5 million women and people with a cervix are invited to go for cervical screening each year. But about 1 in 4 people don't attend.
All women and people with a cervix between age 25 and 64 can go for regular cervical screening, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Most cervical cell changes and cervical cancers are caused by persistent infection with HPV. As HPV can be passed on through any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, anyone having any kind of sex is at risk of getting it.
No. Cervical screening is only designed to find high-risk HPV or cervical cell changes that, if not monitored or treated, may eventually develop into cervical cancer.
No. Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust is a charity independent of the national cervical screening programme, GP surgeries and other clinics and cannot opt you out of the cervical screening programme. It is best to contact your local GP and ask to be removed from the invite list.
We know that cervical screening isn’t easy for everyone and we have lots of support available if you are worried about the test.
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.
We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]
Call our free helpline now on 0808 802 8000.
Have a chat with our trained helpliners to get your questions answered. Get information on HPV, cervical screening, the HPV vaccine, cell changes (abnormal cells) or cervical cancer. No question is too big or too small.