A cervical screening test is a free test to check 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 see if you are currently at risk of developing cancer.
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.
If you have had a smear test in the past, having a new cervical screening test will feel the same. You won't need to do anything different.
Key things to know about cervical screening
- It's not a test for cancer, it's a test to see if you are currently at risk of developing cancer.
- All women or 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 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 that any abnormal cells do not turn into cervical cancer.
- You'll get your results by letter, usually about 4 to 6 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.
Comparing HPV cervical screening to the old smear test
HPV cervical screening:
- is a better way of screening for cervical cancer
- prevents more cancers
- means some people will need fewer tests
How the old smear test worked
The old smear test looked for abnormal cells in your cervix first. If abnormal cells were found, you usually had a colposcopy and treatment to remove these cells.
After your treatment, you had a HPV test. If HPV was not found, you did not need more treatment. This is because your risk of developing cancer is very low if you do not have HPV.
But most abnormal cells go back to normal by themselves. There is very little risk of them developing into cancer if you do not have HPV. This meant that some people had a colposcopy and treatment when they may not have needed it.
How the new HPV cervical screening works
The new HPV cervical screening test looks for HPV first.
If HPV is found, your same test sample is checked for abnormal cells. If abnormal cells are found, you will have a colposcopy and treatment.
If HPV is not found, we do not need to check for abnormal cells. This is because your risk of developing cervical cancer is very low if you do not have HPV.
HPV cervical screening is the best way to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. A test showing that you do not have HPV is more reliable than a test that finds you have normal cells.
If we find a HPV infection, we can monitor it and offer you treatment if there are any changes to cells in your cervix.
Cervical screening limitations
No screening test is perfect. Some people will still develop cervical cancer despite regular screening.
If 1,000 people are screened, about 20 people will have abnormal cells.
Old smear test
15 of these 20 people will have these cells found through the old smear test. 5 people will not and may develop cervical cancer.
New HPV cervical screening
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 women or 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 women or people with a cervix are now offered screening 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.
Watch a video explaining the changes to cervical screening
If you had a smear test before March 2020
You may have had a smear test before HPV cervical screening was introduced in March 2020.
If your smear test results were normal, you will have a HPV cervical screening test at your next screening appointment.
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.
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:
- the success of the HPV vaccine for school children
- HPV cervical screening
Australia was was one of the first countries to bring in HPV cervical screening. It was also the first to recommend that most women or 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.
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 of the condition they are being screened for.
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.