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What is cervical screening (a smear test)?

Cervical screening is a free health test that helps prevent cervical cancer. It checks for cell changes (abnormal cells) on your cervix caused by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). It is not a test for cancer.

Read more about HPV >

You might hear cervical screening being called a smear test. This is just a different name for the same test.

Read more about what happens during cervical screening >

Who can have cervical screening?

In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are: 

  • between the ages of 25 to 64
  • registered as female with a GP surgery.

 You are invited: 

  • every 3 years between age 25 and 49
  • every 5 years between age 50 and 64.

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:

  • under the age of 25
  • over the age of 64, if you have had regular cervical screening.

We have more information if you are under 25 or if you are 65 or over.

If you are worried about any symptoms, you should get them checked by your doctor or nurse, whatever your age. 

Read more about symptoms of cervical cancer >

Cervical screening when you are pregnant

If you are pregnant

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 (abnormalities), 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.

Read more about having cervical screening when you are pregnant on the NHS website >

If you are planning a pregnancy

Ask your doctor or nurse if you are up to date with your cervical screening. This means that any tests or treatment can be arranged around the pregnancy.

Cervical screening after total hysterectomy

A total hysterectomy is an operation that removes the womb and cervix. If you have had a total hysterectomy, you will not be invited for cervical screening as it isn’t necessary – there is no cervix to take a sample of cells from. 

Read more about total hysterectomy > 

Cervical screening and HIV

If you have HIV, speak with your doctor or nurse about going for cervical screening every 1 year. HIV can make your immune system very weak, meaning it is not as able to get rid of HPV that causes most cervical cancers. Annual cervical screenings are usually taken outside of the NHS National Screening Programme.


Show references


How we research and write our information >

  1. Sasieni P. et al, Effectiveness of cervical screening with age: population based case-control study of prospectively recorded data, BMJ, 2009.
  2. Public Health England, NHS Cervical Screening Programme: Colposcopy and Programme Management, 3rd edition, 2016.



Cervical screening FAQs >

Read answers to common questions about cervical screening.

Date last updated: 
23 Oct 2018
Date due for review: 
23 Nov 2021

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