Cervical screening

Let's talk cervical screening.


Cervical screening is a free health check available on the NHS throughout the UK.1 You might have heard the terms “smear test”, “pap test”, “pap smear”, or “HPV primary screening”,2 but all you need to know is that cervical screening checks the health of the cervix, the opening to your womb from your vagina.3

It’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. It’s not a test for cervical cancer but can help to prevent the disease.4

Cervical screening checks for high-risk types of a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).4,5 High-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells in your cervix, which if left untreated, might turn into cervical cancer over time.4,5

 Find more information on how you can book your cervical screening

So, what’s the story with HPV?

Finding high-risk HPV early – by booking cervical screening when invited – means you can be

monitored for abnormal cell changes and treated if needs be, before they potentially turn into cervical cancer.4

You can get HPV from any kind of sexual contact, whether penetrative or not.4,5
Finding high-risk HPV early – by booking cervical screening when invited – means you can be monitored for abnormal cell changes,
and treated if necessary before they
potentially turn into cervical cancer.4
Over 80% of people will get HPV at some point in their lives.4,5
  • More than 200 types of HPV have been identified, and in most cases, they’re harmless and your body will get rid of them within a couple of years.5 However, there are some high-risk HPV types known to cause health problems such as cancer.5  
  • Most HPV infections have no symptoms, and the immune system often clears them without them doing the body any harm. This means many people have likely had HPV without knowing, and you may not realise whether you or your partner has it.5
  • Sometimes, HPV can go undetected by a test for several years but not cause any harm (known as “dormant”). Occasionally, HPV that was dormant can become active again.5

Who’s eligible for cervical screening?

Harry and Jodie Cervical Screening Story

Cervical screening is for women and people with a cervix (including trans men, non-binary and intersex people), from the ages of 25 years to 64 years old.1,3

  • In the UK, when it’s time, you’ll automatically get a letter in the post from the NHS inviting you to make a cervical screening appointment.1,3
  • If you are registered as a male with your GP and have a cervix, you won’t automatically get invited.1,3
  • You may get your first invite up to six months before you turn 25 years old.1
Cervical screening is still important:
  • If you haven’t had sex before. This is because high-risk types of HPV, the main cause of cervical cancer, can be passed on by any sort of sexual contact, not just penetrative sex.4,5
  • Even if you haven’t had sex for a long time. HPV can stay in our bodies for many years, sometimes without us knowing about it, known as ‘dormant’.5 However, HPV that was dormant can become active again and start to cause cervical cell changes.
  • If you’ve only had one sexual partner…you can get high-risk HPV the first time you’re sexually active,4 so do still book your cervical screening appointment when it’s time to.
  • If you’re in an LGBTQI+ relationship…anyone who has ever had any sexual contact with another person is at risk of getting HPV.1
  • If you are going through menopause. It is vital to continue attending cervical screening, even during and after the menopause if under 64 years of age.6
There are some situations where you will not be able to attend your cervical screening, which should be discussed with your GP:

There are some situations where you will not be able to attend your cervical screening, which should be discussed with your GP:

You cannot have cervical screening during your period, so make sure you book an appointment before or after it’s due.7 It can happen at any other time in your cycle.


  • In most cases, it’s recommended that you do not have cervical screening while you are, or could be, pregnant.1 This is because pregnancy makes it harder to interpret your test results.1
  • If you’re invited for cervical screening while pregnant…tell your GP or nurse you are pregnant.1 You should wait three months until after your baby is born to have the examination, or if you need follow-up after an abnormal cervical screening result or treatment, you may need to attend cervical screening while pregnant.1 Cervical screening will not affect your pregnancy.1
  • If you’re planning to become pregnant…call your GP surgery to find out if you’re up-to-date with your cervical screening and arrange any tests or treatment around the pregnancy.1

If you have had a total hysterectomy, an operation that removes the womb and cervix, you will not be invited for cervical screening as there is no cervix to take the sample of cells from.If you’ve had a partial (or “sub-total”)  hysterectomy, whereby the cervix is not removed, you should still be invited for cervical screening, and you should still attend.8

For further information and resources



jo's trust logo

1. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. About cervical screening. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/cervical-screening/what-is-cervical-screening Last accessed: October 2022

2. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Language to use. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/professionals/cervical-screening/language#:~:text=Words%20or%20phrases%20to%20avoid,-AVOID%20%E2%80%93%20%22cytology%22&text=Cervical%20screening%20is%20the%20term,confusing%20and%20new%20to%20patients Last accessed: October 2022

3. NHS. What is cervical screening? Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/ Last accessed: October 2022

4. NHS. Cervical screening: why it’s important. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/why-its-important/ Last accessed: October 2022

5. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. About HPV. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/hpv/what-is-hpv Last accessed: October 2022

6. Menopause Support UK, Guide to preparing for your smear test, available at https://menopausesupport.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Tips-when-going-for-your-smear-test-Menopause-Support9729.pdf, last accessed October 2022

7. NHS. Cervical screening: how to book. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/how-to-book/ Last accessed: October 2022

8. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Blog. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/about-us/news-and-blog/blog/behind-headlines-cervical-screening-incident-scotland-and-what-it-means Last accessed: October 2022