- Cervical screening (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.
- All women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 should be invited by letter.
- During the screening appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix.
- The sample is checked for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause changes to the cells of your cervix. These are called “high risk” types of HPV.
- If these types of HPV are not found, you do not need any further tests.
- If these types of HPV are found, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix. These can then be treated before they get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.
- You’ll get your results by letter, usually in about 2 weeks. It will explain what happens next.
Why it’s important
Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
Cervical screening is not a test for cancer, it’s a test to help prevent cancer.
Cervical screening checks a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
These types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells in your cervix and are called “high risk” types of HPV.
If these types of HPV are found during screening (an HPV positive result), the sample of cells is then checked for abnormal changes. If abnormal cells are not treated, they may turn into cervical cancer.
HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses.
Most people will get some type of HPV during their lives. It is very common and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about.
You can get HPV from any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, not just from penetrative sex.
- vaginal, oral or anal sex
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- sharing sex toys
Some types of HPV (called “high risk” types) can cause cervical cancer. In most cases your body will get rid of HPV without it causing any problems. But sometimes HPV can stay in your body for a long time.
If high risk types of HPV stay in your body, they can cause changes to the cells in your cervix. These changes may become cervical cancer if not treated.
If you do not have a high risk type of HPV it is very unlikely you will get cervical cancer, even if you have had abnormal cell changes in your cervix before.
Find out more about what HPV is
If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact, with a man or a woman, you could get cervical cancer. This is because nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection with high risk types of HPV.
You can get HPV through:
- vaginal, oral or anal sex
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- sharing sex toys
You’re still at risk of cervical cancer if:
- you have had the HPV vaccine – it does not protect you from all types of HPV, so you’re still at risk of cervical cancer
- you have only had 1 sexual partner – you can get HPV the first time you’re sexually active
- you have had the same partner, or not had sex, for a long time – you can have HPV for a long time without knowing it
- you’re a lesbian or bisexual – you’re at risk if you have had any sexual contact
- you’re a trans man with a cervix – read about if trans men should have cervical screening
- you have had a partial hysterectomy that did not remove all of your cervix
If you’ve never had any kind of sexual contact with a man or woman, you may decide not to go for cervical screening when you are invited. But you can still have a test if you want one.
If you’re not sure whether to have cervical screening, talk to your GP or nurse.
It’s your choice if you want to go for cervical screening. But cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect you from cervical cancer.
Risks of cervical screening
You may have some light bleeding or spotting after cervical screening. This should stop within a few hours.
If abnormal cells are found and you need treatment, there are some risks, such as:
- treating cells that may have gone back to normal on their own
- bleeding or an infection
- you may be more likely to have a baby early if you get pregnant in the future – but this is rare
For more information to help you decide, read the NHS cervical screening leaflet.
How to opt out
If you do not want to be invited for screening, contact your GP and ask to be taken off their cervical screening list.
You can ask them to put you back on the list at any time if you change your mind.
When you’ll be invited
All women and people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 should go for regular cervical screening. You’ll get a letter in the post inviting you to make an appointment.
You will not be invited for cervical screening until you’re 25 because:
- cervical cancer is very rare in people under 25
- it might lead to having treatment you do not need – abnormal cell changes often go back to normal in younger women
If you’re 65 or older
You’ll usually stop being invited for screening once you turn 65. This is because it’s very unlikely that you’ll get cervical cancer.
You’ll only be invited again if 1 of your last 3 tests was abnormal.
If you’re 65 or older and have never been for cervical screening, or have not had cervical screening since the age of 50, you can ask your GP for a test.
If you have had a total hysterectomy
You will not need to go for cervical screening if you have had a total hysterectomy to remove all of your womb and cervix.
You should not receive any more screening invitation letters.
How to book
You’ll be sent an invitation letter in the post when it’s time to book your cervical screening appointment.
Try to book your appointment as soon as you get invited. If you missed your last cervical screening, you do not need to wait for a letter.
It’s best to book an appointment for a time when:
- you’re not having a period – also try to avoid the 2 days before or after you bleed (if you do not have periods, you can book any time)
- you have finished treatment if you have unusual vaginal discharge or a pelvic infection
Read more about cervical screening during pregnancy if:
- you’re pregnant now
- you have recently given birth
- you’re planning a pregnancy
- you have recently had a miscarriage or abortion
It’s OK to let the GP surgery know if you have any worries about going for cervical screening.
What happens at your appointment
During cervical screening a small sample of cells is taken from your cervix for testing.
The test itself should take less than 5 minutes. The whole appointment should take about 10 minutes.
It’s usually done by a female nurse or doctor.
Before starting, they should explain what will happen during the test and answer any questions you have.
- You’ll need to undress, behind a screen, from the waist down. You’ll be given a sheet to put over you.
- The nurse will ask you to lie back on a bed, usually with your legs bent, feet together and knees apart. Sometimes you may need to change position during the test.
- They’ll gently put a smooth, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) into your vagina. A small amount of lubricant may be used.
- The nurse will open the speculum so they can see your cervix.
- 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.
If you’re worried about cervical screening, there are things you can try that might make the test easier for you:
You may have some spotting or light bleeding after your cervical screening test.
This is very common and should go away after a few hours.
Your cervical screening results are usually sent to you in a letter. Sometimes you may be asked to call your GP to get the results.
The nurse or doctor who does your cervical screening will tell you when you can expect your results letter.
If you have waited longer than you expected, call your GP surgery to see if they have any updates.
Your results letter will explain what was tested for and what your results mean.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to come back in 3 months to have the test again. This does not mean there’s anything wrong, it’s because the results were unclear. This is sometimes called an inadequate result.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is not found in your sample
Most people will not have HPV (an HPV negative result).
This means your risk of getting cervical cancer is very low. You do not need any further tests to check for abnormal cervical cells, even if you have had these in the past.
You’ll be invited for screening again in 3 or 5 years.
A colposcopy is a simple procedure to look at your cervix.
It’s similar to having cervical screening, but it’s done in hospital.
You might need a colposcopy if your results show changes to the cells of your cervix.
Further help and support
You may need more help and support with cervical screening for many reasons.
Speak to the GP surgery if you have questions about cervical screening invitations, results or any symptoms you have.
For more information and support about going for cervical screening, results and treatment, you can contact Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust by:
- joining the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust Forum
- calling the helpline on 0808 802 8000
- using its Ask the Expert service
- GOV.UK has an easy read guide to cervical screening
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has information and a film about cervical screening if you have a learning disability, and an easy read guide to having a smear test
- the LGBT Foundation has information and support about cervical screening for LGBT people
- GOV.UK has leaflets on cervical screening for lesbian and bisexual women and cervical screening for trans and non-binary people
- the Vulval Pain Society has information about cervical screening if you have any kind of vulval pain, such as vaginismus
If you have experienced sexual violence, you may find the idea of cervical screening very difficult.
The My Body Back Project gives support after sexual violence by running:
- screening clinics for people who have experienced sexual violence
- tips and tricks workshops about cervical screening
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has information, advice and support about cervical screening after sexual violence.