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Cervical screening: what is it and why is it so important?

Everything you need to know about cervical screening, including what happens, when to have one, how to book and why they're important.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Mar 14, 2024

Cervical screening

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There are around 2,700 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in England every year. The NHS has pledged to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040 through cervical screening and HPV vaccination. But what exactly is cervical screening and why is it so important? 

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening (previously known as a smear test) is a test that helps to prevent cervical cancer. In England, you can get cervical screening from ages 25 to 64. While more than 3.4 million people came forward for their cervical screening last year, figures show that 3 in 10 didn’t take up the offer.

Why is cervical screening so important?

While going for a cervical screening isn’t exactly a spa break, attending when invited could potentially save your life. It’s the ultimate in self-care.

Over 99% of cervical cancers are caused by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that's spread through close skin-to-skin contact during any type of sexual contact. Most types of HPV are harmless, but some types are linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer.

It’s important to remember that having HPV doesn’t mean that you have or will develop cervical cancer. However, NHS cervical screening helps to prevent cervical cancer by using a highly effective test to check for high-risk HPV, which may cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix. These abnormal cells can, over time, turn into cancer if left untreated.

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme in England saves thousands of lives every year and, along with the HPV Vaccination Programme, is essential in helping to eliminate cervical cancer.

If you missed your last cervical screening, don’t worry - you don’t have to wait for your next invitation letter. Book an appointment with your GP practice as soon as possible.

Cervical screening

What happens during my cervical screening?

The cervical screening test will usually be done by a female doctor or nurse. You can always request a female doctor or nurse to take your sample when booking your appointment. 

The doctor or nurse should explain what will happen during the test and answer any questions you may have. It should only take a few minutes to take your sample and the whole appointment should take no longer than 10 minutes.

During the appointment, you will be offered a private space to undress from the waist down and be given a sheet to cover your lower half. You might find it more comfortable to wear a long top or dress which you can keep on during the test. 

The doctor or nurse will use a speculum to open your vaginal walls to look at your cervix and take a sample. If you find the procedure uncomfortable, you can ask them to use a smaller speculum or try a different position like lying on your side. Remember, you are in control of your screening appointment and can ask to stop at any time. 

If you’re nervous, you can get in touch with your doctor or nurse before the appointment or speak to them at the appointment to let them know you’d like support. 

The NHS has some tried and tested tips for you here to help make you feel more comfortable during your screening.

What is the HPV vaccination?

To support the elimination of cervical cancer, the NHS is also encouraging those eligible to take up the offer of the HPV vaccine. 

The vaccine helps to prevent HPV-related cancers from developing - this includes cervical, head and neck, and anal and genital cancers - by protecting against infection from some of the high-risk strains of HPV.

All children aged 12 to 13 (school year 8) are offered the HPV vaccine. If you missed getting vaccinated when you were 12 or 13, the HPV vaccine is available for free on the NHS for:

  • All girls under 25

  • Boys born after 1 September 2006

You can contact your school nurse, school vaccination team or GP surgery if you or your child were eligible for the HPV vaccine but did not get vaccinated.

Even if you've had a HPV vaccination, it's important that you attend your cervical screening appointment when invited because the HPV vaccine doesn't protect against all strains of HPV.

Cervical screening with the NHS

What Mumsnet users say about cervical screening

“For the sake of 5 minutes of discomfort and a fairly short wait for results, it's worth it! [...] Surely the anxiety of never knowing is worse than the anxiety of going for the test and knowing for sure if there is anything they need to look into further. Abnormal [cervical screening] results are really common and dealt with quickly. I know that I'd rather know for my own peace of mind!” - Mumsnet user, Joeylove88

“It's so important! I recently had my [cervical screening] (reluctantly I must add) and it showed I had the HPV cells. I got that checked out and then had a stage 1 cervical cancer diagnosis. I'm only 36 so very shocked as I had no symptoms! Very lucky that it was caught early.” - Mumsnet user, Pisces87

“I have gone from HPV negative to HPV positive between two [cervical screenings] with no sexual partner. It can be dormant. I absolutely would always go.” - Mumsnet user, AlltheFs

How do I book my cervical screening?

You’ll receive a letter from the NHS inviting you to make an appointment. How often you’re invited depends on how old you are. If you’re under 25, you’ll be invited up to six months before you turn 25. If you’re 25 to 49, you’ll be invited every three years. If you’re 50 to 64, you’ll be invited every five years and if you’re 65 or above, you’ll only be invited if a recent test was abnormal.

Once you’ve received your letter, you can book your screening appointment with a doctor or nurse. This will usually be through your GP practice.

If you missed your last cervical screening, don’t worry - you don’t have to wait for your next invitation letter. Book an appointment with your GP practice as soon as possible.