A cervical screening test (previously known as a smear test) is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
Detecting and removing abnormal cervical cells can prevent cervical cancer.
These pages should tell you everything you need to know about cervical screening.
You can also watch a video explaining what you can expect to happen during cervical screening.
Testing for abnormal cells
Cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer, it’s a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix.
Most women’s test results show that everything is normal, but for around 1 in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.
Most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own.
But in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous.
About 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK.
It’s possible for sexually active women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, although the condition is most common in women aged 25 to 29. The condition is very rare in women under 25.
The cervical screening programme
The aim of the NHS Cervical Screening Programme is to reduce the number of women who develop cervical cancer and reduce the number who die from it.
Since the screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by about 7% each year.
All women who are registered with a GP are invited for cervical screening:
- aged 25 to 49 – every 3 years
- aged 50 to 64 – every 5 years
- over 65 – only women who have recently had abnormal tests
Trans men who still have a cervix and are still registered as female with a GP will also be invited for cervical screening. Trans men who are registered as male will need to let a GP or Practice Nurse know so they can organise the test. For more information, read Should trans men have cervical screening tests?.
Women over 65 who have never been for cervical screening can have the test. Ask a GP or Practice Nurse for more information.
Being screened regularly means any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and, if necessary, treated to stop cancer developing.
Cervical screening isn’t 100% accurate and doesn’t prevent all cases of cervical cancer, but it’s the best way to pick up any abnormal cells that could later turn into cancer.
Screening is a personal choice and you have the right to choose not to attend.
What happens when you go for cervical screening?
Booking your test
You’ll receive a letter through the post asking you to make an appointment for a cervical screening test. The letter should contain the details of the place you need to contact for the appointment.
Screening is usually carried out by the practice nurse at your GP clinic. You can ask to have a female doctor or nurse.
If possible, try to book an appointment during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually 14 days from the start of your last period), as this can ensure a better sample of cells is taken.
It’s best to make your appointment for when you don’t have your period.
If you use a spermicide, a barrier method of contraception, or a lubricant jelly you shouldn’t use these for 24 hours before the test, as the chemicals they contain may affect the test.
Read more about cervical screening at www.nhs.uk