Cervical Screening: Smear Tests

Women aged between 24 and 64 should have a cervical screening every 3 to 5 years to help prevent cervical cancer. 

If you are aged over 24 and have never had a smear test, or if it has been more than 3 to 5 years since your last screening, you should arrange an appointment for a smear test. You should not have the test while you are having a period or in the 4 days before or after your period as this can affect the sample.

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a method of preventing cancer by detecting and treating early abnormalities which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer in a woman's cervix (the neck of the womb).

Cervical cancer kills two women every day. Regular screenings can help reduce that number through early detection and treatment, which is why it’s so important you attend your screening when invited.

Who is eligible for cervical screening?

All women between the ages of 25 and 64 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every 3 to 5 years.

  • If you’re aged 25-49, you’ll be invited every 3 years
  • If you’re aged 50-64, you’ll be invited every 5 years

The NHS call and recall system invites women who are registered with a GP. It also keeps track of any follow-up investigation, and, if all is well, recalls the woman for screening in three or five years time. It is therefore important that all women ensure their GP has their correct name and address details and inform them if these change.

Women who have not had a recent test may be offered one when they attend their GP or family planning clinic on another matter. Women should receive their first invitation for routine screening at 25.

What happens during cervical screening?

Your screening test will only take a minute or two, the whole appointment usually takes around ten minutes. During your screening test a nurse will give you a private space in which to undress from the waist down. They will also give you a paper sheet to cover yourself and will ask you to lie on the bed. They’ll then place a speculum (a hollow cylinder with a rounded edge) in your vagina. This helps them see your cervix. Then, using a small brush, they’ll gently gather some cells from your cervix. They’ll remove the speculum, put your sample in a pot and send it off for testing.

Important

Please avoid using any vaginal medications, lubricants or creams in the 2 days before you have your screening test as they can affect the results.

When your results should arrive

You should get your results by post within 2 weeks after your test.

Why are women under 25 not invited?

This is because changes in the young cervix are normal. If they were thought to be abnormal this could lead to unnecessary treatment which could have consequences for women's childbearing. Any abnormal changes can be easily picked up and treated from the age of 25. Rarely, younger women experience symptoms such as unexpected bleeding or bleeding after intercourse. In this case they should see their GP for advice.

Why are women over 65 not invited?

Women aged 65 and over who have had three consecutive negative results are taken out of the call recall system. The natural history and progression of cervical cancer means it is highly unlikely that such women will go on to develop the disease. Women aged 65 and over who have never had a test are entitled to one.

What about women who are not sexually active?

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites all women between the ages of 25 and 64 for cervical screening. But if a woman has never been sexually active with a man, then the research evidence shows that her chance of developing cervical cancer is very low indeed. We do not say no risk, only very low risk. In these circumstances, a woman might choose to decline the invitation for cervical screening on this occasion. If a woman is not currently sexually active but has had male partners in the past, then we would recommend that she continues screening.

Frequently Asked Questions

Go to the Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust FAQ