Why cervical screening is important
Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
Cervical screening checks the health of your cervix. It's not a test for cancer, it's a test to help prevent cancer from developing.
How cervical screening helps prevent cancer developing
Cervical screening may check for:
- human papillomavirus (HPV) – some types of HPV can lead to cell changes in your cervix and cancer
- abnormal cell changes in your cervix – left untreated, these could turn into cancer
Your cervical screening test sample will be checked for HPV first.
If HPV is found, the same sample will be checked for abnormal cells.
This way of screening is called HPV cervical screening.
If HPV is not found we do not need to check your cells. This is because your risk of developing cell changes is very low.
A test showing that you do not have a HPV infection is more reliable than a test finding normal cells.
What is HPV
HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses.
You can get it from any kind of physical or sexual contact of the genital area, not just penetrative sex.
Sexual contact includes:
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- vaginal, oral or anal sex
- sharing sex toys
There are over 100 different types of HPV. Most people will get some type of HPV during their lives.
For most people, the virus goes away on its own and doesn't cause any harm.
HPV and cervical cancer
Some types of HPV are a high-risk for causing cervical cancer.
Cervical screening looks to see if you have any of 14 high-risk types of HPV.
Two of these high-risk types cause 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.
Other types of HPV can cause genital warts. These are called 'low-risk' types. Low-risk types do not cause cancer.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by infection with high-risk types of HPV.
But most people who have HPV, even the types that cause changes to the cells of the cervix, do not develop cervical cancer.
Other things that put you at risk of cervical cancer include smoking and having a weak immune system.
HPV can be dormant (sleeping) in your body
There are usually no symptoms of HPV. You could have a HPV infection and not know it.
For most people, the virus goes away on its own and does not cause any harm. Your body's immune system can clear it within 18 months.
But for some people, HPV can stay dormant (sleeping inside the body) for years. It can then become active over time.
This makes it difficult to tell when you got the HPV infection.
You could have got HPV from a previous sexual partner. But it may not become active in your body until years later.
Dormant HPV will not cause you any problems. But if it becomes active, it could begin to cause you problems. In most cases, it takes 10 to 15 years for active HPV to lead to abnormal cells and develop into cervical cancer.
This is why it is safe to wait up to 5 years between cervical screening tests.
Read about why having HPV does not mean that your partner has recently had sex with someone else
The HPV vaccine is given free to children in their first year of secondary school.
The HPV vaccine and regular screening later in life is an effective way to help prevent cervical cancer developing.
The HPV vaccine protects against certain types of HPV. This includes 2 of the types that cause 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.
But it does not protect you from all types of HPV.
You are still at risk of developing cervical cancer if you have had the HPV vaccine. This is why screening is important.
The vaccine works best for girls and boys who have not been exposed to the virus through sexual activity.
An older version of the HPV vaccine protected you against only 4 types of HPV.
Primary HPV testing has been proven to be better than cytology for cervical screening.
The evidence for this has been gathered from people who are not vaccinated against HPV.
Currently, although no HPV test is validated for primary HPV testing in vaccinated people, the test is considered applicable to vaccinated people also.
The evidence supporting this is being shown by other screening programmes, such as in Australia and the UK, who are using HPV testing in HPV vaccinated populations.
Who's at risk of cervical cancer
If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact with a man or a woman you could get cervical cancer.
You should attend cervical screening when it is due.
You are still at risk of cervical cancer if:
- you have had the HPV vaccine – it does not protect you from all types of HPV, so it's still important to attend screening
- you have only had 1 sexual partner – you can get HPV the first time you are sexually active
- you have had the same partner, or not had sex, for a long time – you can have HPV for a long time without knowing it
- you are lesbian or bisexual – you are at risk if you have had any sexual contact
- you are a trans man with a cervix
- you have had a partial hysterectomy that did not remove all of your cervix
If you have never had sexual contact
Your risk of developing cervical cancer is very low if you have never had any kind of sexual contact. This does not mean there is no risk of developing cervical cancer, only a very low risk.
If you have never been sexually active, you may decide not to go for cervical screening when you are invited. But you can still have a test if you want one.
If you're not sure if you should have cervical screening, talk to your GP or practice nurse.