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About cervical screening

 

  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 is a free health test that helps prevent cervical cancer. It checks for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) and, if you have HPV, cervical cell changes (abnormal cells).

We also have information about:

What is cervical screening?

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. 

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.

If you have symptoms, contact your GP surgery about having an examination. Cervical screening is not for people who have symptoms. 

Read about symptoms >

Who is invited for cervical screening?

You should be invited for cervical screening if you have a cervix. Women are usually born with a cervix. Trans men, non-binary and intersex people may also have one.

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 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.

How often will I be invited for cervical screening?

Your cervical screening result will help decide when you are next invited for cervical screening. 

You may be invited:

  • every year
  • every 3 years
  • every 5 years
  • straight to colposcopy for more tests.

Read more about cervical screening results >

Cervical screening invites and coronavirus

Across the UK, cervical screening invites are being sent. If you have an invite, or had your test cancelled because of coronavirus, you may now be able to book an appointment. However, some GP surgeries may not be able to offer appointments straight away. 

Read about cervical screening and coronavirus >

What are the benefits and risks of cervical screening?

You are invited for cervical screening because evidence shows that the benefits of the test outweigh any risks. Along with the HPV vaccine, cervical screening is the best way to protect against cervical cancer and prevents over 7 in 10 diagnoses. However, like any screening test, cervical screening is not perfect and there are some risks.

Benefits of cervical screening

  • Cervical screening aims to identify whether you are at higher risk of developing cervical cell changes or cervical cancer. This means you can get any care or treatment you need early. 
  • England, Scotland and Wales now use HPV primary screening, which is even better as it is based on your individual risk. This means how frequently you are invited for cervical screening is based on your last result and within a timeframe that is safe for you. 

Read about HPV primary screening >

Possible risks of cervical screening

  • In a few cases, cervical screening will give an incorrect result. This means it may say someone does not have HPV or cell changes when they do (a false negative). Going for cervical screening when invited can help reduce this risk, as it is likely HPV or cell changes that were missed would be picked up by the next test. It also means a result may say someone does have HPV or cell changes when they don’t (a false positive), which could mean they are invited for tests or treatment they don’t need.  
  • Sometimes cell changes go back to normal without needing treatment. At the moment, we can’t tell which cell changes will go back to normal, so treating means we can be sure we are preventing them from developing into cervical cancer. This means some people may have unnecessary treatment, which is called overdiagnosis or overtreatment. Using HPV primary screening should help prevent this. 

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 outweigh the risks and most results will be clear. 

Opting out of cervical screening

If you decide not have cervical screening, ask your GP to be taken off their invite list. If you change your mind, you can ask your GP to add you back to the list at any time.

Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust is an independent charity and cannot opt you out of the National Cervical Screening Programme. 

Read more about opting out of cervical screening > 

Cervical screening FAQs

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.

No. Cervical screening is only designed to find high-risk HPV or cervical cell changes which, if not monitored or treated, may eventually develop into cervical cancer. It does not check for other conditions or any cancers.

It is very rare to develop cervical cancer under the age of 25. It is also rare to develop cervical cancer over the age of 64, if you have had regular cervical screening. 

Read our information for people under 25 >

Read our information for people 65 or over >

Cervical screening is not for people with symptoms. If you are worried about symptoms, see your GP for an examination.

Read more about symptoms > 

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. 

Read more about HPV and how it affects us >

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:

  • A hysterectomy. This is an operation that removes the womb and cervix. If you have had a hysterectomy, you will not be invited for cervical screening as there is no cervix to take a sample of cells from. 
  • Pelvic radiotherapy. This is a treatment that directs radiation at the part of the body between the hipbones (pelvis). It can damage the cells of the cervix and make it harder to tell if there are any changes, so you may not be automatically invited for cervical screening. Your doctor may do a separate follow up appointment with you.

After these treatments, your healthcare team may want you to have a different test called a vault smear. This takes a sample of cells from your vagina and tests them to check that they are healthy. Whether you are offered vault smears and how long you are offered them for depends on your individual situation. 

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.

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.

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. 

How we can help

We know that cervical screening isn’t easy for everyone and we have lots of support available if you are finding it difficult to make a decision about whether to go. Our trained Helpline volunteers can talk you through the benefits and risks, as well as ways to make the test better for you – call them free on 0808 802 8000.

Check our Helpline opening hours >

If you have a medical question about cervical screening and what it is for, we have a panel of experts ready to help.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

Sometimes talking to other people who have been for cervical screening can help. On our Forum you can chat or read through lots of conversations about the test and pick up someone useful tips.

Join our online Forum >

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

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 >

What happens at cervical screening? >

Read about what happens during a cervical screening appointment.

Date last updated: 
09 Sep 2020
Date due for review: 
08 Jan 2022
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