Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is used to find early cell changes in the cervix, which may develop into cancer in the future.
Cervical screening uses a test called liquid-based cytology. The doctor or nurse takes cells from the cervix and puts them into a fluid to preserve them. This is often referred to as a cervical smear.
NHS cervical screening (smear tests)
In the UK, the NHS provides a cervical screening programme for all women who are registered with a GP. The ages when you are invited to attend, and how often screening happens, depends on where you live. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have national programmes with information about what screening is and how it works.
Once women reach the age of 60–64 (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 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. Your GP can discuss this with you.
Where to go for your screening test
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. Screening tests can also be done at private clinics.