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Benefits and limitations of cervical screening

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

It's your choice if you want to go for cervical screening.

Benefits of screening

Regular cervical screening can save lives.

It can find:

  • human papillomavirus (HPV) before it causes abnormal cells in the cervix
  • abnormal cell changes before symptoms develop
  • abnormal cell changes when they are easier to treat

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. Finding HPV and abnormal cells early is the best way to prevent cervical cancer developing.

This is why having regular screening tests is important.

Limitations of screening

The main limitations of cervical screening are:

  • it will not prevent all cases of cervical cancer
  • some people will still develop cervical cancer despite regular screening
  • some abnormal cell changes may be missed
  • it will not find every abnormal cell change
  • you can test negative for types of HPV and still develop cervical cancer

Inaccurate results

Sometimes test results are inaccurate.

You may have further tests that you do not need and cause you to worry.

Or you may be told that you do not need further tests or treatment, when there is actually a risk of cancer at the time.

We call these results false positives and false negatives.

False positives and false negatives are unavoidable. They happen in every screening programme. 

These types of results may cause unnecessary worry or be harmful for some people. But the benefits of cervical screening outweigh these limitations for most people.

Accuracy of cervical screening results

Page last reviewed: 19 December 2022
Next review due: 19 December 2025