Cervical screening

The cervical screen is also known as a ‘smear’ test, and previously ‘PAP’ test. Cervical screening is a method of detecting abnormal cells in the neck of the womb (or cervix). These cells may return to normal or they may develop into pre-cancerous cells. The development of pre-cancerous cells can be prevented by identifying and treating abnormal cells identified by the smear test.

Why is this important?

Cervical cancer does not usually have any symptoms until it is advanced. The NHS Cervical Screening programme aims to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer by detecting abnormal cells early.

Who does it affect?

All women between the ages of 25 and 64 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every three to five years, or more frequently if an abnormality is detected. Women can develop cervical cancer at any age, though it’s more common amongst sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.

What does this mean for me?

You should attend your regular cervical screen when invited by your GP. Regular cervical screening can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers developing.

More support

  • NHS National cervical screening leaflet in English
  • Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust: Helpline 0808 802 8000 Mon - Fri. Providing information and support on a range of topics including screening concerns, screening results, cervical abnormalities, cervical cancer, treatments and survivorship issues.

Get tested

Prepare

You should receive your first invitation for routine screening at 25 years old. After that, you’ll be invited through your GP, so it’s very important that you are registered with a local GP and your contact details are up to date.

You should not be tested during your period, so try to make your appointment for one week after your last bleed.

You may be asked to delay your screen if you are pregnant or have had a baby recently, as it can be harder to interpret the results of the test.

If you have missed a test for any reason, you can call your GP at any time to book another appointment.

You can be screened at your GP or at most sexual health clinics.

Procedure

You will be asked to undress from the waist down and will be given a towel to cover yourself with. The clinician will use a plastic instrument called a speculum to gently open your vagina, then will use a small soft brush to sweep around the cervix. This takes a couple of minutes. It may feel a little uncomfortable. If you prefer, you can request a female doctor or nurse when you book your appointment.

Results

You should receive the result of your test in writing in around two weeks from the date of your test.

Most women receive a normal result. You will be recalled for another routine test in three or five years if the result is normal, depending on your age.

Less than 7% of women receive an abnormal result. This may mean that you need to have further tests to find out more, and have more regular screens in the future.

Questions?

You should book a new appointment to have your smear done at your GP or sexual health clinic.

No, you should postpone your smear test if you are on your period. Blood cells on the sample make it difficult to read the test. It is recommended that you make an appointment one week after your last bleed. If you have irregular bleeding and are not sure when your period will come, you can still make an appointment and change it if you need to.

The smear test is not usually painful. Some women find the process uncomfortable. It lasts for about two minutes.

Yes, the HPV jab prevents many types of the HPV virus that is associated with abnormalities of the cervix but it does not prevent all of them. You should still have regular smears.

This depends on how old you are:

Cervical screening2

Every three years

Cervical screening3

Every five years

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If you haven't been screened since age 50 or if you haven't had a recent abdominal test

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites all women between the ages of 25 and 64 for cervical screening. But if a woman has never been sexually active, then her chance of developing cervical cancer is very low. In these circumstances, a woman might choose to decline the invitation for cervical screening.

If a woman is not currently sexually active but has been in the past, she should continue screening.