Cervical Screening Test

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer, but rather a test that looks for abnormal cells in the cervix. If those abnormal cells are left untreated, they can develop into cancer.

A cervical screening test (previously called a "smear test") consists of your clinician using a soft brush to take a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix. The sample is then sent to a laboratory to be examined and tested for the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. You will be sent the results by letter.

Who is invited for cervical screening

The NHS cervical screening programme is for women and people with a cervix. They offer screening every three years from age 25 to 49 and every five years from age 50 to 64. Some people may be invited more often due to a previous screening result. In addition:

  • Age 25: First invitations will arrive a few months before you turn 25. You can book your appointment as soon as you receive your invitation.

  • Transgender (trans) men: If you are registered with your GP as a female, you will receive invitations for cervical screening. If you are registered as male, you won't receive invitations, but your GP or practice nurse can arrange an appointment for you if you have a cervix. If you are trans woman, you do not need cervical screening.

  • Over age 65: If you have had three normal results at your last three cervical screenings (or just one in Wales), then you will not receive any more invites. If you have had an abnormal result after any of your last three screenings, you will continue to be invited to cervical screening until you either have three normal results consecutively or you test HPV negative.

  • Women with certain risk factors, such as HIV, may require more frequent testing, so follow your healthcare team's instructions about what is best for you. ​

"Women belong in all places where decisions are being made... It shouldn't be that women are the exception."


Ruth Bader Ginsberg

What can cause an abnormal cervical screening test?

A cervical screening test looks for the presence of certain types of HPV and abnormal cells in the cervix, which can develop into cancer if left untreated. Abnormal changes in cells of the cervix can be caused by certain high-risk types of HPV. 

  • The cervical screening test uses a soft brush to take a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix. 

  • The sample is tested for the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. 

  • If you have a positive result for HPV, your sample will be checked for abnormal cells. Abnormal cells are not cancer, but can develop into cancer if left untreated.

What happens after an abnormal cervical screening test?

The nurse or doctor will tell you when you can expect your results letter.

There are 4 possible results.

1. HPV negative

An HPV negative result means that you not need any further tests. This result means it is highly unlikely that you will have any abnormal cervical cells. Even if you did, it would be extremely unlikely that they would cause a problem. You would simply be called back for screening again in 3 or 5 years’ time (depending on your age).

2. HPV positive: no abnormal cells

If your sample is HPV positive , your sample is also tested for abnormal cervical cells. If none are found, your result will say you have HPV, but no abnormal cells. You will be asked to come for screening again sooner than usual (your result letter will explain when). This is to check if your immune system has got rid of the HPV (this happens in most cases).

3. HPV positive: abnormal cells found

There are several ‘grades’ of abnormal cells as some are more serious than others. Your result letter will explain what your results mean. If you have HPV and any grade of abnormal cervical cells you will be referred for a colposcopy examination. 

4. Inadequate result

Occasionally a sample may be called ‘inadequate’. This may be due to a technical problem, for example if the laboratory cannot get an HPV test result from your sample or cannot see if abnormal cells are present or not. If you have an inadequate test, you will be asked to have cervical screening again in 3 months’ time. The short wait is so that there are enough cells again to get a sample from.

As a next step you may be offered another examination called a colposcopy, to look at your cervix more closely. If abnormal cells are found during colposcopy your clinician may suggest you have the cells removed. This is how screening can prevent cervical cancer.

To find out more about the NHS Cervical Screening programme, access their website using the button below.


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