Cervical screening

Cervical Screening

In the 'Cervical Screening' section you can find out what cervical cancer is, what the screening test involves and what your results mean.

You can also read about the risks and benefits of cervical screening and how you can change your lifestyle to reduce your chance of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical screening (sometimes called the 'smear test') is a test to check for cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is very common and easily spread by sexual activity.

Who's offered a cervical screening test?

In Scotland, the cervical screening test is offered to all women:

  • between the ages of 25 and 49 every 3 years
  • between the ages of 50 and 64 every 5 years

Some, but not all, changes found by cervical screening tests may give an early warning sign of the possibility of developing cervical cancer. By dealing with this at an early stage, many cervical cancers can be stopped.

What's a cervical screening test?

This is a test that involves checking cells from your cervix (the neck of the womb) and an HPV test, where appropriate. The test is designed to pick up any changes so they can be easily and effectively monitored or treated. Without treatment, in some cases, the changes could eventually become cancerous.

Diagram of female reproductive organs

Hover over the image below to view a diagram of female reproductive organs.

AAA Screening Hover

Download this diagram PDF (146KB)

What causes changes in my cervix?

Most changes are caused by HPV, a common virus which damages cells in the cervix. It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people in Scotland catch HPV at some time in their lives.

Many people have HPV without knowing as there are usually no symptoms. HPV is mainly spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

Tobacco smoke affects cells in the cervix. This means that women who smoke have a higher chance of changes in the cells of their cervix, and may need to have a further smear which may lead to further investigations and treatment.

Smoking also increases the risk of people with HPV developing cervical cancer.

How can HPV cause cervical cancer?

There are over 100 different types of HPV, but only around 15 types are associated with cancer. These are 'high risk' types and cause 99% of cases of cervical cancer. Your immune system fights off most HPV infections naturally, but about 1 in 10 infections are harder to get rid of.

Sometimes HPV gets into the surface of a woman's cervix and it may stay there for several years without doing any harm. Occasionally however, HPV may start to damage cells and cause them to change, which, if left untreated, can develop into cancer.

Cervical screening leaflet: A smear test could save your life

This leaflet gives more information on the importance of smear tests, who they're for and what will happen at your smear test appointment.

A smear test could save your life: don't ignore your invitation leaflet (PDF, 630KB)

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Last updated: 09 June 2016