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What cervical screening is

A cervical screening test checks the health of your cervix. The cervix is the opening to your womb from your vagina.

It's not a test for cancer, it's a test to help prevent cancer from developing.

Screening first looks to see if you have any of the high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer.

If HPV is found, your same test sample will be checked to see if you have any abnormal (pre-cancerous) cells in your cervix.

This is a new way of screening. It is called HPV cervical screening. It was introduced in Ireland in March 2020.

HPV cervical screening:

  • is a better way of cervical screening
  • prevents more cancers
  • means some people will have fewer tests

If you have had a smear test in the past, having a cervical screening test will feel the same.

Key things to know about cervical screening

  • It's not a test for cancer, it's a test to help prevent cancer from developing.
  • All people with a cervix aged 25 to 65 should be invited for regular free screening by letter.
  • During the screening test, a small sample of cells is taken from your cervix.
  • The sample is tested for human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • HPV can cause abnormal cell changes in the cervix.
  • HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer.
  • If your sample tests positive for HPV, we will check for abnormal cells.
  • Abnormal cell changes are sometimes called pre-cancerous cells.
  • In most cases, it takes 10 to 15 years for cells in the cervix to go from normal to pre-cancer to cancer.
  • Finding HPV or abnormal cells early means you can be monitored or treated so they do not turn into cervical cancer.
  • You'll get your results by letter, usually about 4 weeks after your screening test.

Do not delay having a cervical screening test when it's due. It's one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.

Read about who is at risk of cervical cancer and why screening is important

How new HPV cervical screening compares with the old smear test

HPV cervical screening is a new way of cervical screening. The test looks to see if you have HPV first.

If HPV is found, your test sample is checked for abnormal cells.

The old smear test looked for abnormal cells first. But finding HPV first is a better way to screen for cervical cancer.

If we find a HPV infection early, we can monitor it and offer you treatment if there are any changes to cells in your cervix.

If 1,000 people are screened, about 20 people will have abnormal (pre-cancerous) cervical cells:

  • 15 of these 20 people will have these cells found through the old smear test - 5 people will not and may develop cervical cancer
  • 18 of these 20 people will have these cells found through new HPV cervical screening - 2 people will not and may develop cervical cancer

Changes to how you are screened

If you have had a smear test in the past, having a cervical screening test will feel the same.

The only changes you may notice are:

  • most people with a cervix will be invited for screening less often
  • people aged 30 to 44 will now have a screening test every 5 years instead of every 3 years
  • all eligible people with a cervix are screened up to age 65

Why some people will have cervical screening less often

People aged 25 to 29 are screened more often because they are more likely to have HPV at that age.

If you are aged 25 to 29 you will usually have a cervical screening test every 3 years.

If you are aged 30 to 65 you will usually have a cervical screening test every 5 years.

It is safe to wait for 5 years between tests if you do not have a HPV infection.

This is because:

  • your risk of developing cell changes is very low
  • a test showing that you do not have HPV is more reliable than a test finding normal cells

In most cases, it takes 10 to 15 years for a HPV infection to develop into cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a rare outcome of a HPV infection.

Read more about when you are invited for cervical screening.

Ending cervical cancer

Australia and Rwanda are set to become some of the first countries in the world to end cervical cancer.

This is because of:

Australia was was one of the first countries to bring in HPV cervical screening. It was also the first to recommend that most people with a cervix are screened every 5 years.

The evidence worldwide is that HPV cervical screening is the best way to carry out cervical screening.

Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK have all recommended the introduction of HPV cervical screening.

If you had a recent smear test before HPV cervical screening came in

If your smear test results were normal, you will be called for HPV cervical screening 3 or 5 years after your last smear test. It will depend on your age.

If your smear test results found low-grade abnormal cells, follow the advice you were given in your result letter.

If you have had a colposcopy or treatment at colposcopy, your colposcopist will tell you when you should have your first HPV cervical screening test.

A smear test is still a very effective way to prevent cervical cancer developing. It is the way we screened for cervical cancer before HPV cervical screening was introduced.

Not a test for cancer

A cervical screening test is not a test for cancer. It's a test to help prevent cancer from developing.

A screening test looks to see if you might be at risk of developing cancer in the future. This is why it can be effective in reducing the risk of cancer.

Like all screening tests, it's carried out on people who seem to be healthy. They do not have any symptoms.

But cervical screening, like all screening tests worldwide, is not perfect.

Some people will still develop cervical cancer despite regular screening. While the risk of cervical cancer can be reduced, it cannot be eliminated by screening.

Cervical screening is still one of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer from developing.

This is why it is important to attend for a screening test when it is due.

Read about why abnormalities are sometimes missed and results can be inaccurate.

Related topic

Benefits and limitations of cervical screening

page last reviewed: 30/12/2019
next review due: 30/12/2022