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Benefits and limitations of cervical screening

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

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

Benefits of screening

Regular cervical screening:

  • saves lives
  • can find HPV before it causes abnormal cells in the cervix
  • can find abnormal cell changes before symptoms develop
  • can find abnormal cell changes when they are easier to treat

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 get cancer at any time, including between your screening tests. We call cancer that is found in between screening tests, interval cancer.

Inaccurate results

Sometimes test results are inaccurate.

You may have further tests at colposcopy that you do not need.

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. They may cause you to lose trust in the screening programme. But the benefits of cervical screening outweigh these limitations.

Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect against developing cervical cancer.

Read about false positive and false negative results.

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