Cervical Screening (Women)

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening is a way of preventing cancer. It aims to pick up cell changes that could develop into cancer if left untreated. Your cervix is the lowest part of your womb, and is at the top of your vagina.

A nurse takes a sample of cells from the cervix using a small soft brush. They send this to the laboratory to check for the human papilloma virus (HPV) and any changes in the cervical cells. Some types of HPV can cause cervical cells to become abnormal. Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to these types of HPV.

In Wales and most of England, they now test for HPV first. This is called primary HPV testing. If they find HPV, they then check for cell changes in the sample. This is still being rolled out across England.

Who can have cervical screening?

The NHS cervical screening programme invites women from age 25 to 64 for cervical screening. Depending on where you live and your age, you get an invite every 3 to 5 years. You need to be registered with a GP to get your screening invitations. 

If you are over 65 and have never had cervical screening, you can ask your GP for a test if you want one.

Benefits of Cervical Screening 

Cervical screening helps prevent cervical cancer from developing and saves thousands of lives every year in the UK.

HPV vaccination

Since 2008, girls aged 12 and 13 have been offered a vaccination against the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is to protect against cancers caused by HPV, such as cervical cancer. The vaccine works best in young people, before they are likely to have come into contact with the virus. The vaccine is now offered to boys too. 

An English study in 2021 showed that the vaccine dramatically reduced cervical cancer rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at age 12 to 13.  

Although the vaccine protects against the 2 types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer, it doesn’t protect against other types of HPV that are linked with cervical cancer. This means that girls who have had the HPV vaccine still need to go for cervical screening from age 25.

If you have symptoms

As well as going for screening when you are invited, you still need to look out for any unusual changes to your body. Check for:

  • abnormal bleeding (such as bleeding between periods)
  • vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
  • pain during sex

See your doctor if you notice anything unusual. There are many conditions that can cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than cervical cancer. But it is important to get your symptoms checked out.

This short video shows you what happens at your cervical screening appointment.