Preventing cervical cancer 

There's no single way to completely prevent cervical cancer, but there are things that can reduce your risk.

Safer sex

Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to an infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can be spread through unprotected sex, so using a condom can reduce your risk of developing the infection. However, the virus isn't just passed on through penetrative sex – it can be transmitted during other types of sexual contact, such as skin-to-skin contact between genital areas and by using sex toys.

Your risk of developing an HPV infection increases the earlier you start having regular sex and with the more sexual partners you have, although women who have only had one sexual partner can also develop it.

Read more about sexual health.

Cervical screening

Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix at an early stage.

Women who are 25-49 years of age are invited for screening every three years. Women who are 50-64 years of age are invited every five years. For women who are 65 years of age or older, only those who haven't been screened since they were 50, or those who have had recent abnormal tests, are offered screening.

Make sure that your GP surgery has your up-to-date contact details, so that you continue getting screening invitations.

It's important that you attend your cervical screening tests, even if you've been vaccinated for HPV, because the vaccine doesn't guarantee protection against cervical cancer.

If you've been treated for abnormal cervical cell changes, you'll be invited for screening more frequently for several years after treatment. How regularly you need to go will depend on how severe the cell change is.

Although it can identify most abnormal cell changes in the cervix, cervical screening isn't always 100% accurate. Therefore, you should report symptoms such as unusual vaginal bleeding to your GP, even if you've recently been tested.

Cervical cancer vaccination

The NHS cervical cancer vaccination programme uses a vaccine called Gardasil. Gardasil protects against four types of HPV, including the two strains responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancers in the UK (HPV16 and HPV 18). It also prevents genital warts.

Girls are offered the childhood immunisation programme. The vaccine is given to girls when they're 12-13 years old, with three doses given over a six-month period.

Although the HPV vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, it doesn't guarantee that you won't develop the condition. You should still attend cervical screening tests, even if you've had the vaccine.

Avoid smoking

You can reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer by not smoking. People who smoke are less able to get rid of the HPV infection from the body, which can develop into cancer.

If you decide to give up smoking, your GP can refer you to the NHS Stop Smoking Service, which gives you help and advice on the best ways to stop smoking.

You can also call the NHS Smoking Helpline (0300 123 1044) and speak to specially trained staff who will provide free expert advice and encouragement.

If you want to give up smoking, but you don't want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe medical treatment to help with any withdrawal symptoms that you may experience after giving up.

For more information and advice on giving up smoking, see stopping smoking and treatments for stopping smoking.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017