Cervical screening is sometimes called a smear test. It’s a test used to check the cervix for any changes that may indicate the possibility of precancer or cancer changes. Cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer, but it can pick up changes to cells in your cervix that could become cancer in the future if they aren’t treated.
During a cervical screening test, a small sample of cells is taken from an area on the surface of your cervix called the transformation zone. These cells are then sent to a laboratory where they are examined initially for the presence of subtypes of human papilloma virus (HPV) that are known to be associated with the development of precancer and in a small number of patients ultimately cancer.
The NHS runs a cervical screening programme in the UK. In England and Northern Ireland, women between 25 and 64 years old are invited for screening. If you’re registered with a GP, you will be invited by your surgery to have cervical screening at least once every three years. Depending on where you live, this may change as you get older – for example in England, from the age of 50, this becomes once every five years. You can also have cervical screening elsewhere, such as at a family planning or sexual health clinic, or at a private facility.
If you have never had sex, you’re at an extremely low risk of developing cervical cancer. If you’re not currently sexually active but have been in the past, it’s recommended that you continue to go for cervical screening. If you have had a hysterectomy, you probably won’t need to have cervical screening unless your cervix wasn’t removed. You may be invited to go for a different type of test, called a vault smear, depending on why you had a hysterectomy.