Skip to main content

Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer, it's a test to help prevent cancer.

How cervical screening helps prevent cancer

Cervical screening checks a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).

These types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells in your cervix and are called "high risk" types of HPV.

If these types of HPV are found during screening (an HPV positive result), the sample of cells is then checked for abnormal changes. If abnormal cells are not treated, they may turn into cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses.

Most people will get some type of HPV during their lives. It is very common and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about.

You can get HPV from any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, not just from penetrative sex.

This includes:

  • vaginal, oral or anal sex
  • any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
  • sharing sex toys

Some types of HPV (called "high risk" types) can cause cervical cancer. In most cases your body will get rid of HPV without it causing any problems. But sometimes HPV can stay in your body for a long time.

If high risk types of HPV stay in your body, they can cause changes to the cells in your cervix. These changes may become cervical cancer if not treated.

If you do not have a high risk type of HPV it is very unlikely you will get cervical cancer, even if you have had abnormal cell changes in your cervix before.

Find out more about what HPV is

Important

Finding high risk HPV early means you can be monitored for abnormal cell changes.

Abnormal changes can be treated so 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. This is because nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection with high risk types of HPV.

You can get HPV through:

  • 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: 31 March 2020
Next review due: 31 March 2023