Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
Cervical screening checks the health of your cervix. It's not a test for cancer, it's a test to help prevent cancer.
How cervical screening helps prevent cancer
Cervical screening may check for:
- abnormal cell changes in your cervix – left untreated, this could turn into cancer
- human papillomavirus (HPV) – some types of HPV can lead to cell changes in your cervix and cancer
What is HPV?
HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses.
You can get it from any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, not just from penetrative sex.
Most people will get some type of HPV during their lives.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection with certain types of HPV.
What is HPV primary screening?
In future, all samples will be checked for HPV first, and only checked for abnormal cells if HPV is found.
This is called HPV primary screening. HPV primary screening is more accurate than testing for abnormal cell changes first.
Finding cell changes early means they can be monitored or treated.
This means they do not get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.
Who's at risk of cervical cancer
If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact, with a man or a woman, you could get cervical cancer.
Sexual contact includes:
- vaginal, oral or anal sex
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- sharing sex toys
You're still at risk of cervical cancer if:
- you have had the HPV vaccine – it does not protect you from all types of HPV, so you're still at risk of cervical cancer
- you have only had 1 sexual partner – you can get HPV the first time you're sexually active
- you have had the same partner, or not had sex, for a long time – you can have HPV for a long time without knowing it
- you're a lesbian or bisexual – you're at risk if you have had any sexual contact
- you're a trans man with a cervix – read about if trans men should have cervical screening
- you have had a partial hysterectomy that did not remove all of your cervix
If you've never had any kind of sexual contact with a man or woman, you may decide not to go for cervical screening when you are invited. But you can still have a test if you want one.
If you're not sure whether to have cervical screening, talk to your GP or nurse.
Cervical screening is a choice
It's your choice if you want to go for cervical screening. But cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect you from cervical cancer.
Risks of cervical screening
You may have some light bleeding or spotting after cervical screening. This should stop within a few hours.
If abnormal cells are found and you need treatment, there are some risks, such as:
- treating cells that may have gone back to normal on their own
- bleeding or an infection
- you may be more likely to have a baby early if you get pregnant in the future – but this is rare
For more information to help you decide, read the NHS cervical screening leaflet.
How to opt out
If you do not want to be invited for screening, contact your GP and ask to be taken off their cervical screening list.
You can ask them to put you back on the list at any time if you change your mind.
Page last reviewed: 26 February 2019
Next review due: 26 February 2022