Cervical screening is a way of detecting early changes to cells of the cervix. It’s not a test for cancer, but it can help prevent cervical cancer by identifying early abnormalities that could become cancer if left untreated. Having screening for cervical cancer is also sometimes referred to as having a cervical smear test.
The first step in cervical screening is to take a sample of cells from the cervix using a method known as liquid-based cytology. This is often referred to as a cervical smear.
NHS cervical screening (cervical smear tests)
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In the UK, the NHS provides a cervical screening programme for all women who are registered with a GP. The ages when women are invited to attend, and how often screening takes place, varies slightly between the four countries.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland:
women are sent their first invitation for routine cervical screening at the age of 25
women between the ages of 25-49 are invited for cervical screening every three years
women between the ages of 50-64 are invited for screening every five years.
In Scotland, cervical screening is offered every three years to women aged 20-60.
Once women reach the age of 60-65 (depending on the country they live in), they are no longer invited to have cervical screening unless they’ve had recent cervical changes or haven’t been screened since they were 50. The reason for an upper age limit is because if the cells in the cervix are normal at this time, it’s very unlikely that a cancer will develop in later years. However, women aged 60 and over who’ve never had a screening test are entitled to have one.
Women under 25 (20 in Wales and Scotland) aren’t routinely screened as part of the screening programme because changes in a young woman’s cervix are quite normal. In this situation, screening may lead to unnecessary treatment. Research has also shown that screening women in their early 20s isn’t very effective at preventing cervical cancer.
Women who have never been sexually active have a very low risk of developing cervical cancer. However, although their risk is very low, there’s still a small possibility of cervical cancer so screening is still recommended. If you’ve never had sex you may choose not to be screened, and your GP or practice nurse can discuss this with you further.
Women who are no longer sexually active, but who were in the past, are still recommended to be screened when invited. This also applies to women who’ve been vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV). Women who’ve never had penetrative sex and women in same-sex relationships are also advised to be screened as they may still have been exposed to HPV.
Women of any age, who’ve had treatment for abnormal cells on the cervix within the last 10 years, may need to have a screening test more often than suggested above. Your GP can discuss this with you.
Where to go for your screening test
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You’ll be sent a letter from your local primary care support service or GP asking you to make an appointment for your screening test. Most women choose to have the test done by their practice nurse or GP. You can ask to have it done by a female doctor or nurse if you prefer.
Cervical screening tests can also be done at a family planning clinic, Well Woman clinic, sexual health clinic or a genitourinary clinic. You can get details of your local clinic from NHS Direct in England and Wales, NHS 24 in Scotland, NHS Direct Wales or Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland. Screening tests can also be done at private clinics.