Cervical screening (previously called a smear test) checks the health of your cervix. The cervix is the opening to your womb from your vagina.
It’s not a test for cancer, it’s a test to help prevent cancer. Cervical screening aims to find cervical cancer early.
Every person who has a cervix and is within the screening age range (25-64) is eligible for NHS cervical screening regardless of their gender identity.
How often you are invited depends on your age. See the WHEN section below.
Cervical screening is for people with no symptoms. If you have symptoms of cervical cancer you should contact your GP directly.
Screening can help to identify cancer earlier than it would have been without screening.
Cervical screening checks a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can cause changes in the cells in your cervix.
If certain types of HPV are found, the sample of cells is then checked for abnormal changes. If abnormal cells are not treated, they may turn into cervical cancer.
During cervical screening a small sample of cells is taken from your cervix for testing.
You can request that the test is done by a female nurse or doctor. It should take less than 5 minutes, and your whole appointment should take about 10 minutes.
They should explain what will happen during the test and answer any questions you have.
You’ll need to undress from the waist down, or you may find it more comfortable to wear a skirt which you can keep on during the procedure. You will be asked to lie back on a bed, with a sheet over you, usually with your legs bent, feet together and knees apart. Sometimes you may need to change position during the test.
A smooth, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) will be inserted into your vagina. A small amount of lubricant may be used. The nurse will open the speculum so they can see your cervix. You may find the process uncomfortable but it should not hurt, and you can ask the nurse or doctor to stop at any point.
Using a soft brush, they’ll take a small sample of cells from your cervix. The nurse will close and remove the speculum and leave you to get dressed.
You will be invited for the first time up to 6 months before you turn 25. You’ll get a letter in the post inviting you to phone your GP to book an appointment.
When you are between 25 and 49 you will be invited every 3 years.
When you are between 50 and 64 you will be invited every 5 years.
When you are aged 65 or older you will only be invited if 1 of your last 3 tests gave an abnormal result.
If you know you have missed a cervical screening, you can make an appointment without waiting for the next letter.
Your screening appointment will usually be at your GP surgery.
You may need to go to a hospital but only if your results mean you need further tests.
It might take a few weeks for you to receive the results of your screening. You should get a letter in the post, though you may be asked to phone your GP surgery instead.
There are three possible results, and this is what they mean:
HPV not found: this is the most common result. It means your risk of getting cancer is low and you will be invited for another appointment in 3 or 5 years (depending on your age). If you have symptoms of cervical cancer between tests you should contact your GP.
HPV found with abnormal cells: you will be invited for a further test called a colposcopy
HPV found but no abnormal cells: you will be invited for another screening appointment in 1 year, but no further tests for the moment. If you still have HPV after 3 years you may be invited for a colposcopy.
The HPV vaccination helps to prevent cancer by protecting against HPV, the virus that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer and some other cancers.
The vaccine has been shown to reduce cervical cancer rates by almost 90%
It is first offered to all children between the ages of 11-13 (years 8 and 9) in the UK. It will also be offered to older children if not taken up earlier.
Anyone who has not received two doses by the time they leave school can contact their GP to have the vaccine.
To read more about the HPV vaccine visit the Cancer Research UK website