Cervical screening: what you need to know

Director of Clinical Strategy, Bupa
20 January 2017

Cervical screening, or the ‘smear test’, is a test to help prevent cervical cancer. The test checks for changes to the cells of your cervix, which if left untreated could turn into cervical cancer over time.

Despite the benefits of cervical screening, many women don’t attend their appointments. This has previously led to an increase in the amount of women getting cervical cancer. Here we look at everything you need to know about cervical screening. Including how often you should be screened, what’s involved and when a trip to your GP in advance of your screening appointment might be needed.

Ladies talking

Why is it so important?

In the early stages, women with cervical cancer don’t tend to have any symptoms. They usually only start when the cancer is more advanced. In the absence of symptoms, cervical screening allows healthcare professionals to pick up on any pre-cancerous cell changes. They can then send women for the right tests and treatment to help prevent cervical cancer from developing should they need to.

How often should I be screened?

When you’re 25, you should have your first cervical screening test. You should then be screened every three years between the ages of 25 to 49. After this, you’ll be offered screening every five years until you’re 64.

You should receive a letter in the post inviting you to make an appointment for your cervical screening test. All the information you need to book the appointment should be in the letter, so don’t delay!

What does the test involve?

You’ll have the test at your local GP clinic. A healthcare professional trained in cervical screening will do your test. They’ll make you feel as comfortable as possible. You’ll have to undress from the waist down and sit with your legs supported and apart. So it’s a good idea to wear clothes that you can change out of easily.

Your healthcare professional will use a device called a speculum to gently hold open your vagina, so they can see your cervix (the neck of your womb). They’ll use a small brush to take a sample of the cells in your cervix and then send them to the laboratory for testing.

The test only takes a few minutes, but all in all your appointment might last around ten minutes or so.

You should receive your results no later than 14 days after your test. If you don’t receive your letter or are unsure about your results, give your GP surgery a call.

An image showing the location of the ovaries and surrounding structures 

Why does screening start at 25?

Cervical cancer is rare in women under the age of 25 and it’s thought that screening at a younger age could actually do more harm than good.

If you’re under 25, it’s not unusual for you to have abnormal cells in your cervix. But they usually resolve by themselves. If women are screened under the age of 25, it’s likely that some women will have follow-up tests and treatments that they don’t need. If you become pregnant in future, these follow-up investigations might cause you to deliver your baby prematurely. So to avoid this happening unnecessarily, screening starts at age 25.

What efforts are being made to protect the younger generation from cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is most commonly caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is usually passed from one person to another through sex. In the UK, girls are offered a vaccine before they are sexually active to help protect them from HPV. The vaccine helps to protect girls against the most common types of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer.

Do I need to be screened if I haven’t had sex?

If you’re a virgin, your risk of cervical cancer is low, so you might choose not to have cervical screening.

Do I still need to be screened if I’ve had a hysterectomy?

If you’ve had a total hysterectomy, your cervix will have been removed, so you won’t need to be screened. However, if you’ve had a subtotal hysterectomy your cervix won’t have been removed, so you should attend routine screening appointments.

When not to wait – symptoms of cervical cancer

If you have any of the following symptoms, contact your GP as soon as possible:

  • pain in your pelvis (the area below your waist at the top of your legs) or back
  • pain during sex
  • abnormal bleeding, such as after you’ve had sex or in between your periods
  • mucus or pus like discharge from your vagina
  • vaginal discharge that has blood in it
  • unusually heavy periods
  • bleeding after your menopause

These symptoms aren't always caused by cervical cancer, so it’s important not to be overly alarmed or panic if you have them. But if you do have any of these symptoms, contact your GP. Don’t wait for your next screening appointment to discuss them.

Dr Lizzie Tuckey
Director of Clinical Strategy, Bupa

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